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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. 

 

Silver Linings

Silver Linings

Silver Linings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silver Linings

Katrina Nannestad

ABC Books, 2023

304pp., hbk., RRP $A19.99

9780733342257

Rural New South Wales in 1952 – a new monarch is about to be crowned and for five-year-old Nettie Sweeney life is almost perfect.  She has a dad, three big sisters, a farm full of cows and a cat called Mittens, can read and write and even does spelling with Second Class because she is so clever.  But Nettie longs for a mother.  Her own passed away when she was born (leaving her with all sorts of misconceptions about babies and storks) and she would love to have one who has a gentle touch, sparkles in her eyes and lots of love and hugs to give.  But instead she has cranky Aunty Edith who is quick with her hands and even quicker with her tongue as she clings to the old ways.  

When Dad marries Alice, all Nettie’s dreams come true and the Sweeney home overflows with laughter, love and a new philosophy of looking for the silver linings in everything rather than the dark clouds.  When her baby brother. Billy, is born he becomes  the light of Nettie’s life and her world is perfect.  Until it isn’t…

Those who are familiar with five-year-olds, and even those who aren’t , will laugh out loud all through the beginning of this book as we see life through the unfiltered lens of Nettie and her doll Fancy Nancy.  And they will empathise with the unsophisticated five-year-old who has to handle the family tragedy in her own way because she just isn’t mature enough to know of any other. Her naivety endears her from the beginning and her resilience and courage as events play out inspire. While the big issues of PTSD, loss and depression that are confronted could be anywhere, anytime,  by placing them in the early 50s Nannestad distances them enough from the reader’s here and now for them to be acknowledged but not necessarily absorbed. And for those of us old enough to know better, how will we ever think of Queen Elizabeth II as anything but “the mongoose of the British Umpire” again? 

It’s a rare author who can write a story for young children in a way that has adult readers turning page after page because there has to be a solution, and Nannestad is one of those.  As with The Girl who brought Mischief, this one had me reading past my bedtime because I was so enamoured of Nettie and needed to know there was a happy ending.     

This is one for independent readers who like real-life stories (it is based on family happenings) and if you are preparing a list of books for Christmas stockings, this should be on it.         

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and Endings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginnings and Endings

Jan Stradling

Jedda Robaard

ABC Books, 2023

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

9780733342400

Swish the goldfish has died and Little Ted is sad.  But his friends are on the way to help him feel better and to remember that life is all about beginnings and endings.

This is a very gentle story about life and death featuring the familiar friends from the long-running Play School, which in itself will comfort those who are suffering a loss like Little Ted as they realise everyone,  even their favourite characters,  will encounter loss and feel sad.  It is entirely natural but Jemima, Humpty, Kiya and Big Ted have ways to help Little Ted feel a bit better and see that there is still wonder and beauty in the world.  And their advice is encapsulated in  the final page with ideas to help lessen the misery and look for the things that brighten our hearts.

This is another in this collection of stories designed to help our youngest reader navigate some of the trickier paths to growing up and with illustrations as soft as the text, it is one for all parents to have in the home library. 

My Especially Weird Week with Tess

My Especially Weird Week with Tess

My Especially Weird Week with Tess

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Especially Weird Week with Tess

Anna Woltz

Translated by David Colmer

David Dean 

Rock the Boat, 2023

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

9780861542963

Sam is a deep thinker – his older brother, Jasper, calls hum ‘the professor’ – and since attending the funeral of a schoolfriend’s father recently, many of his thoughts have been centred around death, particularly its impact on those left behind.  And it is his questions about the loneliness of the last dinosaur that leads to a chance meeting with 12-year-old Tess who seems to be on his wavelength and turns a run-of-the-mill holiday on the Dutch island of Texel into a life-changing time for both of them.

Within minutes of the meeting he finds himself learning to waltz in a carpark, offering to bury an old man’s canary and then discovering that Tess, who has never known her father, has found out who he is and has hatched an audacious plan to bring him to the island so she can observe him and decide whether she will disclose her identity. Through the filter-free conversations that kids have when life is still about them and theirs and not impinged by what others might think, they share their thoughts and do things that help them work through Sam’s fear of the loneliness caused by death and Tess’s relationship with her father that is completely credible for any reader who is the same age or who knows how that age group thinks and works. The setting, the situation and the characters are authentic and I binge read it in one session!

 Made into an award-winning Dutch film titled My Extraordinary Summer with Tess ,translated into 13 languages and awarded  The Times Children’s Book of the Week in March 2023, this is a heart-warming story of friendship and compassion for independent readers, even a class read-aloud,  that will envelop the reader like a warm hug.  Loved it in the same way as I loved The Girl who brought Mischief.  

 

 

 

Picasso and the Greatest Show on Earth

Picasso and the Greatest Show on Earth

Picasso and the Greatest Show on Earth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picasso and the Greatest Show on Earth

Anna Fienberg

A & U Children’s, 2023

384pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99

9781760296988

Frances is in a new house in a new neighbourhood and going to a new school, but no amount of new can make her forget the old, sad secret dragging at her heart. Not the pictures of bacteria that she draws with painstaking precision, not even Picasso, the puppy with the long soft ears and the cute black circle like a target on his bottom. With her father overseas in Pakistan writing about terrible diseases and her mother in mourning, they are both out of reach to Frances and she carries her grief and guilt alone. 

But then she meets Kit, the tall, quiet boy with the two-coloured eyes, who seems as alone as she is, as he seeks refuge in the school library to draw each lunch break. . Kit is a real artist. His coloured pencils fill page after page of exercise books. He sees wonder in the rocks and ferns and sky, although Frances soon detects  Kit has worries of his own.

But when secrets are spilled, Frances’s life turns grey and drab. Not even Picasso’s wet nose can brighten her up. Frances and Kit will need to face the truth of their pasts to find colour in their world again. After all, don’t the most brilliant sunsets need a cloudy sky? 

While their stories may be different, many readers will relate to this new novel by Anna Fienberg as they too, will have been the new kid in town with all the uncertainty and upheaval that that will bring, although few would be carrying the guilt of believing they are responsible for their younger brother’s death. In subtle, gentle ways, the author draws together a diversity of characters each experiencing and expressing grief in different ways and how shared interests, nature and a cheeky puppy can bring about a healing not thought possible.
More suited for upper primary students, this is a story that offers reassurance and hope that there is is way through the darkness we experience, even if the light  is not yet visible.  You never know when it will glimmer and brighten or the direction that will come from. 

The Girl Who Brought Mischief

The Girl Who Brought Mischief

The Girl Who Brought Mischief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Girl Who Brought Mischief

Katrina Nannestad

ABC Books, 2023

224pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9780733342899

After her mother dies, Inge Marie is sent to live with a grandmother she has never met, and who certainly doesn’t seem to want the responsibility of an unknown child, particularly one with her hair half-eaten off by a goat. It is a huge adjustment for each of them as Inge Marie is used to a carefree childhood with servants and freedom in the bustling city of Copenhagen and now finds herself in a tiny cottage on a remote island of Denmark where there are farm animals to care for, domestic chores to be done and a bed to be shared with a grandmother who snores.  And things get much worse when she has to go to the local school… 

Inge is very aware that what might be normal for her bright, optimistic self could be construed by her grandmother as bad manners or even bad behaviour and so she becomes very grateful and remorseful as she navigates a series of incidents like knocking Henry the turkey out cold that are just the hijinks of childhood It’s hard to forge a path between an imagination boosted by the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, the city life taken so abruptly from her and living with someone who has only known the traditional life of a small village community.  Grandmother slaps her once or twice – she has never been hit before – but it is all part of the process of accepting their unimaginable loss and managing their grief.  And gradually things start to change, not just for Inge and her grandmother but, indeed for the whole village.

This book was previously published in 2013 and was the Winner of the 2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature as well as being a CBCA Notable Book for Younger Readers in 2014 and it has stood the test of time.  Told by Inge, it is both heart-warming and heart-breaking in places but throughout there is a realisation that both are trying to come to terms with their new situation and you have the feeling that things will work out for the best.  Despite being set in 1911, when girls were supposed to be quiet and genteel while boys could be rowdy and rambunctious, young readers will see themselves in the outspoken Inge and delight in her approach to life while being compassionate for her loss.   

As well as being deserving of the awards that it has won and the praise it has been given, this story has stood the test of time and a new audience will delight in it.  

 

Scout and the Rescue Dogs

Scout and the Rescue Dogs

Scout and the Rescue Dogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scout and the Rescue Dogs

Dianne Wolfer

Tony Flowers

Walker Books, 2023

224pp., pbk., RRP $A15.99

9781760655860

As the school year comes to an end at the Arcadia Boarding School for Young Ladies, Scout has only two plans for the long summer holidays – to enjoy the time with her trucker dad and to persuade him that Arcadia is not the best fit for her and she shouldn’t have to go back there.  She has only been there since her mother died from cancer and having kept that a secret from the other girls, she has found it hard to make friends.  And now her teacher has set  the class a summer project of reaching out to three others to establish stronger friendships… and , of course, two of her three assigned contacts are her greatest tormentors.

But, Dad has one last run to do before they can escape to their farm near Beechworth – a philanthropist has donated a load of dog food to be delivered to animal rescue shelters in anticipation of the increased numbers they experience over Christmas – and soon Scout’s school-based problems fade into perspective as she meets carers and dogs and even makes a new friend through Ms Lawler’s initiative, all the while facing the threat of bushfires sweeping the countryside. 

Set against the backdrop of the unprecedented fire season of 2019-2020 and travelling through south-eastern Australia through country that is so familiar to me – I’ve been to every one of the towns mentioned so many times – this was a story that kept me reading well past my bedtime and into the early hours.  Wolfer has created a character who tells the story of that dreadful time through a child’s eyes – the interminable days of smoke and ash, the concern for the native wildlife, the fear of ember attacks and worse – and while, as an adult who evacuated twice because of the imminent danger, I could cope with the memories, it may open wounds that are just beginning to have scar tissue for some readers. But, at the same time, it is a story of love,  the importance and power of memories,  friendship, the camaraderie amongst strangers as communities rally together as they do in dire times, and of hope as Scout comes to terms with her situation through her deepening relationship with her dad and her own philanthropic enterprises.  And threaded through it to lighten the mood as the real-life issues are addressed, is the greatest collection of the WORST Dad Jokes ever!!!

Burrumbuttock Hay Run

Burrumbuttock Hay Run

 

A Boy, His Dog and the Sea

A Boy, His Dog and the Sea

A Boy, His Dog and the Sea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Boy, His Dog and the Sea

Anthony Browne

Walker Books, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A27.99

9781529507058

Danny is bored. He would have liked to have been playing with his brother Mick but he’s off with his mates so, instead, he takes his dog Scruff for a walk on the beach.  Even though Danny thinks it’s a vast, boring nothingness, especially on a cool wintry day. Scruff loves it and it’s not too long before they are having a game of fetch as Scruff continually chases a stick into the water and brings it back.  But it’s when they see a crowd of people shouting and laughing and waving to someone in the water, that Danny’s afternoon takes a remarkable turn…

As usual, master storyteller Browne offers a visual feast as he combines fairly straight-forward text with his rich illustrations and, just as Danny’ mother suggests he use his eyes closely because “you never know what you might see”, so too should the reader.  But, for me, as much as I love the sea in all its changing moods and colours, and the treasures found along its shore, it is the dedication that underpins this story.  “In loving memory of my big brother Michael” suggests there is a poignant undertone of loss and longing that there could have been a different ending to his brother’s real-life story and this is echoed in the muted palette and flat, almost featureless seascape with just the odd break on the horizon.

So, as well as offering young readers the opportunity to think about what Danny’s mother suggests about finding hidden treasures and sharing their stories of seaside adventures, it is also an opportunity to think about friends and things lost forever and the emotions attached to this.  Given this is the third book about loss and  grief that I have read and reviewed in the last three days, perhaps I am overthinking what might seem a simple story but my experience of Browne’s writing is that like, the beach, there are always hidden treasures to discover. You just have to look. 

 

Meet Me at the Moon Tree

Meet Me at the Moon Tree

Meet Me at the Moon Tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Me at the Moon Tree

Shivaun Plozza

UQP, 2023

252pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9780702266171

“On the thirty-first of January, 1971, Colonel Stuart Roosa flew into space aboard the Apollo 14 mission to the moon, carrying hundreds of tree seeds for an experiment to see if being in space made trees grow differently…and then he took them home and germinated them and planted them all over the world and they grew up and now they’re called moon trees.”

And on the same day that Colonel Roosa took those seeds into space. Carina’s dad was born and he always told Carina that they would find a moon tree together – they would travel the world and visit every moon tree on earth. Because the trees were magic.  Apart from being the only trees on Earth whose seeds had been to the moon and back, because they had they were bursting with stardust which made them extra magical.  And, according to Carina’s dad, science is about learning how the magic works.

But before they could make their round-the-world journey, even before they could move to their new home in the forests of the Otway Ranges where he was sure there would be a moon tree, her dad was stricken with acute myeloid  leukaemia and died. Carina is almost crippled with grief and is determined to keep the memories of her dad alive by finding the moon tree. But, despite her scientific plan to search for it, it is not easy and is made even less so because of the attitudes of her mum and her older brother, Jack, both of whom are also grieving but expressing it in ways that a 10 year old doesn’t really only understand. As her mum pours her heart and soul into renovating their new home, Carina is convinced she is unloved now, and it’s the last straw when Jack breaks the gift she got her dad for the Christmas her mum seems determined not to celebrate.  Only Gramps, who loves gardening and birds, and is desperately trying to hold the fragile family together, seems to understand but even then, he has his moments… The only highlights in this miserable, sad new life are her friendship with Betty who believes in the moon tree and Colin, a black cockatoo who seems to understand her need to reconnect with her dad somehow. 

When you’re reading a book and you can either hear yourself reading it aloud to a class or you’re composing your review as you go, you know you are on to a winner that will keep you hooked till the end  And so it was with this one.  As an adult you can understand that each of the characters is expressing their grief in their own way, and sometimes they don’t realise the impact of their actions on those around them, but if you’re only 10 it is hard to see that bigger picture. But it is not all gloom and doom- there are elements of humour and insight as everyone is forced to adapt to this new situation, with each having to travel their own path towards healing.  

As well as being a thoroughly engaging read for independent readers. it demonstrates that that path is an individual one, different for each person who travels it, and there is neither a right or wrong way or a timeline or time limit – something that will assuage the feelings of those who are also on the journey as they cope with their own loss, whatever that might be.  Teachers’ notes suggest ways to explore the story in greater depth, including its use of figurative language, but it is definitely a story that could have triggers for some readers so it needs to be used judiciously by someone who knows the audience well.  

Grandad’s Camper

 

 

 

 

Grandad's Camper

Grandad’s Camper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandad’s Camper

Harry Woodgate

Andersen Press , 2022 

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

 9781783449927

There’s nothing Milly loves more than to visit her Grandad, snuggle up on the sofa and listen as he tells all about the amazing places he and Gramps would explore in their camper.  But these days, Grandad’s camper van is hidden away in the garage – now Gramps isn’t around any more, the adventures they shared travelling in it just wouldn’t be the same. As she listens to his wonderful stories, Grandad’s granddaughter has an idea to cheer him up…

This is a delightful story of a little girl’s relationship with her grandfather, a bond that those of us who have been fortunate to experience it never forget.  But this story has a twist because there is no grandma – rather there is Gramps, her grandfather’s much loved partner. And while it is a reminder that there are many definitions and designs of “family” – the rainbow flag on the camper on the cover is an indicator- it is the little girl’s complete acceptance of the situation that is heart-warming because it shows we have come a long way, albeit there is still a way to go.  So while gender diversity is not the obvious in-your-face focus of the story, it is the memories that are so inextricably bound together by Grandad’s and Gramps’ relationship that are at its heart. 

Family diversity is so widespread and little ones need to see theirs in stories, so this is another opportunity to share and celebrate. 

Originally published March 4, 2022

Updated February, 2023