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.  

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 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…

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. 

The Kindness Project

The Kindness Project

The Kindness Project











The Kindness Project

Deborah Abela

Puffin, 2024

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


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


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


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.

Lily Halfmoon (series)

Lily Halfmoon (series)

Lily Halfmoon (series)










Lily Halfmoon (series)

The Magic Gems 


The Witches’ Council


Xavier Bonet, translated by Marie Trinchan

A&U Children’s, 2024

80pp., graphic novel, RRP $A17.99

Nine-year-old Lily Halfmoon has just moved to the town of Piedraville. New house, new school and … new powers?

Surprise – Lily is a witch! She must learn magic, and find her animal guardian and gemstone, while keeping her new identity a secret. Not even her family can know.

Protecting the people of Piedraville from evil is no easy task. Especially when a dangerous creature is on the loose. Will Lily finally discover her gem’s unique power with the help of her new friends, Gigi and Mai, all without attracting attention? But a mysterious person is after her rare moonstone, and if they get their hands on it, it could threaten everything Lily holds dear. Will Lily have the strength to fight for what she believes?

The concept of ordinary children discovering magical powers as they become more independent, having to find their particular protective talismans and staving off those who want them is becoming a familiar trope in literature for the emerging reader, but nevertheless, as the enduring popularity of Harry Potter demonstrates, it is one that remains popular and with a constant stream of newly independent readers emerging, discovering it, it will continue to fascinate.   

So with its familiar themes, what sets this series apart?  Firstly, it is in graphic novel format so the reader has to be able to cope with that format, although this one has more dialogue to carry the story than others, the panels track left to right in a logical sequence and it is in regular font, rather than all capitals, making its appearance more familiar, as well as ‘regular’ pages that add more information and background – so, all in all, making it a solid introduction to this popular format. It also has potential to become a sought-after series, as in The Magic Gems, as well as the plot and premise being introduced, the characters and their relationships are established setting the platform for any number of adventures to come, particularly given the cliffhanger ending..  


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.

The Last Zookeeper

The Last Zookeeper

The Last Zookeeper











The Last Zookeeper

Aaron Becker

Walker Books, 2024

40pp., hbk., RRP $A27.99


In a not-so-futuristic time, the Earth has flooded and the waters continue to rise. The only signs of humankind are the waterlogged structures they left behind. Peeking out from the deluge are the remnants of a zoo, home to rare and endangered animals like elephants. giraffes, tigers, pandas  and rhinoceroses, who have hung on and clung on despite everything. Tender-hearted NOA is a huge construction robot who has found a new mission as the caretaker of the zoo’s beleaguered inhabitants, and despite towering above them, they trust him.  Bracing for the next storm, NOA builds an ark from the wreckage around him and together they go in search of new land, only to almost perish as that anticipated storm hits while they are at sea.  But then something miraculous arrives, and NOA not only discovers sanctuary for those he has saved, but something even more profound…

 Described by the publisher as a “luminous sci-fi parable for our changing world”, the only words in this masterpiece are a quote from primatologist and anthropologist Dr Jane Goodall,..

Only if we understand, can we care.

Only if we care, will we help.

Only if we help, shall all be saved.

But within the illustrations is a powerful story that is a parallel to the biblical story and which offers so many riches to explore, particularly by those who are so well aware of the need to protect and preserve the environment and the prospect of the impact of climate change.  So while younger readers may interpret this as a futuristic retelling of Noah and his ark, more sophisticated readers will bring all their own existing knowledge and experiences to tell their own tale as they examine the details embedded in the illustrations creating a unique, very personal story unimpeded by the text of another.  And while it may seem to be a story of gloom and doom that could be depressing, there is a twist that references the other biblical story of the Garden of Eden that offers hope that perhaps not all is lost in the post-apocalyptic world… 

Reviews of this amazing work abound and each suggests a new aspect, element or interpretation that could be explored including discovering Becker’s other work, The Tree and the River, which is a “time-lapse portrait of humankind – and our impact on the natural world”, making both of these core texts for older readers who, having asked what-if now want to consider what-next. So while most are touting it as suitable for ages 4-7, to me this is one for older readers who have an understanding of the current environmental uncertainty and who can bring that, as well as their knowledge of the biblical stories and the universal human need for hope to the table so they can really appreciate the beauty and value of Becker’s work.