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.  

Secret Sparrow

Secret Sparrow

Secret Sparrow











Secret Sparrow

Jackie French

HarperCollins, 2023

256pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99


September 1978 and Arjun is walking to the local mall when he hears the roar of a flash flood approaching and sees the river become a turbulent mass of brown, white-flecked water with cars bobbing along like plastic bath toys.  Miraculously a motor bike appears and he is urged to climb on, as the rider heads to the only high part of this flat landscape that should never have been built on – a grassy knoll that boasts only a small carpark and a rubbish bin on a pedestal. 

As surprised as he is by the ferocity and the swiftness of the flood, he is even moreso when he discovers his rescuer is an elderly woman! And that she is  a woman with an amazing story to tell as the waters rise and she makes him climb in the rubbish bin and use old newspapers for warmth and has the wisdom to know his thoughts need diverting from both the  current situation and the fate of his mates trapped in the mall.  It is a story of going from growing up in an English village during World War I to being commandeered into serving her country despite being only 16;  to being torpedoed by a German U-boat while crossing the English Channel to living and working in the hell of the trenches of France… all because she learned Morse Code while competing with her older brothers and became so fast and accurate her skills had been noticed.

But this is not just Jean McLain’s story told to keep a young lad calm and distracted – this is the story of at least 3600 women who were used as signallers as she was during World War I who not only signed an oath that they would never divulge their role even decades after the war was over but whose service was never formerly recognised and so they received only their Post Office employee pay while they served and had to pay for their own medical treatment if they were injured, and whose army records were deliberately destroyed by the authorities because of their embarrassment at having to admit that they not only had to rely on women to serve, but the women had excelled. To have to admit that so many had been able to step up and cope in situations that required “physical strength, mechanical knowledge and the courage to work under fire” when such physical and emotional circumstances as war and its inevitable death were seen as “unwomanly”, was an anathema to many men and so not only were individual stories never told, they were lost altogether.

But, using her usual meticulous research, author Jackie French has brought it to light, as once again she winkles out those contributions of women to our history that seldom appear in the versions of history told by men.  So as well as Arjun being so intrigued by Jean McLain’s story as the night passes, dawn appears and she teaches him to use her long-ago skills to summon help, our more mature, independent readers (and their teachers) can also learn something of that which we were never told.  Because, apart from those in the roles like Jean McLain who could be prosecuted for sharing their wartime adventures even with their family, there was an unwritten code of the survivors of all wars that the horrors would not be shared because, apart from being horrific, unless you were there you would never understand.  But now at the age my grandfather was when he died, I have learned a smidgeon of what it must have been like for him on the notorious Somme and can only wonder at how he went on to become who he did.  

It is estimated that World War I claimed the lives of some 16 million people worldwide, 9.5 million of which were military deaths. It is also estimated that around 20 million were wounded, including 8 million left permanently disabled in some way. Of those lives lost, 54 000 were young Australian lads who were so eager to sign up for this grand new ‘adventure’ that they lied about their age and 18 000 young Kiwis who, like my grandfather, believed it was their duty to fight for “King and Country”. But only now, through stories like this and The Great Gallipoli Escape, are we learning the real story and through the questions she has her characters ask and answer are we being encouraged to question things for ourselves, not just about the war but also what we stand for. Often in the story Jean McLain is spurred on by her belief in her need to  “do her duty” and that her actions are saving lives, but then she poses the same situation to Arjun. “What are we worth if we don’t do our duty to each other? What kind of life is it if you don’t love someone or something enough to die for them? What matters to you, eh?’ 

As well as teaching us about the past, French inspires us to think about the future – and that is a gift that only writers if her calibre can give our students. 


The Turtle and the Flood

The Turtle and the Flood

The Turtle and the Flood











The Turtle and the Flood

Jackie French

Danny Snell

HarperCollins, 2023

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


Myrtle the Turtle loves by the creek, swimming in the waterholes and eating the little creatures in summer, and sleeping in the dry leaves under a log in winter.  If the creek dries up she buries herself in the silt and the sand to keep cool, and if it rains and the creek flows swiftly, she swims with her strong legs and claws.

However, every now and then she notices a slight change in the water level and the air pressure on the back of her neck, and she knows that that is the signal to move to higher ground. And so she begins to walk uphill…  Like the Fire Wombat, her long-evolved instincts, “more accurate than the weather bureau” tell her disaster is coming and it is time to act.  But Myrtle is not only saving herself from the impending flood – the other creatures of the bush know that if she is on the move then they must be too.

In a country of frequent fire and flood, our wildlife is often seen as the first and most frequent casualty as so many are estimated to perish.  And the statistics can cause great distress to many, particularly our little ones, so as well as telling the story of Myrtle and how her instincts and actions are the triggers for others to act too, this is a story of reassurance that not all is doomed during disasters. While those who know Jackie’s stories for little people most commonly think “wombats”, her home in south-eastern NSW is a haven for all wildlife, including Myrtle and her companions who live in the creek that usually meanders through the space but which can become menacing…

Used with Jackie's permission...

Used with Jackie’s permission…

But there is some peace of mind in knowing that many animals can sense rain, storms and floods well ahead of the event itself and do escape.

Once again, Jackie has used her knowledge, experience and observations of her surroundings to create a story of wonder and hope, and Danny’s illustrations bring that alive symbiotically. But while Myrtle’s story will offer comfort to younger readers, older readers might want to explore further… How do creatures like Myrtle sense the changes? Do humans have the same capacity?  Is the Bureau of Meteorology our only warning system? How do our First Nations people predict the weather and what can we learn from them?  Does the land need floods in a similar way to its need of fire? And then, on another tangent, how has the impact of humans on the environment increased or reduced the likelihood of the survival of native species during such events?  Do structures like roads and fences impede their escape?

I have often said that the best picture books operate on and across many levels, they are never an end in themselves.  This is one of those.  

Against All Odds

Against All Odds

Against All Odds












Against All Odds

Craig Challen & Richard Harris

Ellis Henican

Puffin, 2022

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


In June 2018, for seventeen days, the world watched and held its breath as the Wild Boars soccer team were trapped deep in a cave in Thailand. Marooned beyond flooded cave passages after unexpected rains, they were finally rescued, one-by-one, against almost impossible odds, by an international cave-diving team that included Australians Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris and Dr Craig Challen.

In this young readers’ edition, specially edited and condensed for a younger audience and including new maps and diagrams explaining the rescue, as well as photographs, a timeline and glossary, the story of the remarkable rescue is recounted by those two doctors. 

And while it is a fascinating tale with their first-hand accounts filling in the gaps that could not be shown on the nightly news, and which will give added understanding to the new movie Thirteen Lives coming to Netflix, for me the key messages for our students lie in the personal introductions from both doctors…

In a year when the CBCA Book week theme is Dreaming With Eyes Open, Dr Craig says, “This is the worst thing you can do, putting limits on yourself before you have even tried for no reason other than the fear of the unknown …  slowly I built knowledge and expertise until one day I realised that the limits I had previously believed in were not really there at all, I was able to do so much more and go much further than I knew… And every challenge pursued, whether successful or not, builds our capability and strength as adventurers.”

While Dr Harry declares, after being described as a unicorn because of the “rare and improbable combination of skills I brought to the rescue” that, “I came to realise that every one of us is a unicorn. Every one of us has a unique combination of skills and characteristics, and hopefully there is a custom-made place in life for all of us.” 

They both believe that the boys coped in the cave because “they were country kids, They grew up in a tough environment, Several of them knew what it meant to be stateless, When you grow up doing hard things, you are ready for the challenges of life when they come.” This was a message echoed in Dr Harry’s accepted speech when he and Dr Craig were awarded joint Australians of the Year in 2019. 

“I do fear for kids today who, living in a risk-averse society, will not learn to challenge themselves and to earn the grazed knee and stubbed toes that really are necessary to build resilience and confidence, …Kids do need to be kids and they need to be allowed to find their own boundaries and to test their own limits… Parents [need] to let them have a little rope to do that.”

While so many of us waited for news during those 17 days as what began as a two line news filler about a soccer team trapped in a cave in remote Thailand became a global focus and then our lives moved on; and while for those involved there were debriefs and examinations for the lessons to be learned for the future, the enduring message is that of the doctors and young readers should be inspired.  A legacy indeed. 

Australia’s Wild Weird Wonderful Weather

Australia's Wild Weird Wonderful Weather

Australia’s Wild Weird Wonderful Weather












Australia’s Wild Weird Wonderful Weather

Stephanie Owen Reeder

Tania McCartney

NLA, 2020

68pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


According to my Facebook memories, 12 months ago it was snowing heavily here in the Snowy Mountains while there were 95 bushfires raging in the north of NSW, and we, ourselves, were evacuated just a few weeks later because of fires that had ignited here. The talk and news were constantly about the “worst drought in memory”, the heat and the continual and spreading threat of those fires.  And just as we thought that it would never end and we were doomed to breathing smoke-laden air forever, the rains came and places devastated by flames were now threatened with floods!

Regardless of the time of year, the weather in Australia is always a reliable topic of conversation and now two of my favourite creators have teamed together to offer an explanation for the phenomena for our younger readers.  Beginning with an explanation of whatever is weather, their combined writing and drawing talents have been used to explore the various elements of the weather, particularly in Australia so there is a greater understanding of the why, where, when and how of that which has such a bearing on our lives so that it is more than listening to the brief forecast on television or the BOM site. or being fascinated by the rain radars.  Living in the bush as I do, my favourite pages were Bush Forecasting that explain some of the behaviours and characteristics that we have come to notice and learn as the weather changes. Black cockatoos are always a welcome sign here.

Both Stephanie and Tania have drawn deeply on the resources of the National Library of Australia (luckily for them, it’s in their neighbourhood) and being a NLA publication the support materials for further exploration are very detailed. Even moreso though, is the module written to support the book as part of the NLA’s digital classroom   Aligned with the Australian Curriculum: Humanities and Social Sciences (Geography), and Science for Year 4, 5 and 6 students, it adopts an inquiry-based learning approach to develop students’ understanding of geographical and scientific processes relating to weather, environments, people and systems.

What more could you want?

The House on the Mountain

The House on the Mountain

The House on the Mountain











The House on the Mountain

Ella Holcombe

David Cox

Allen & Unwin,2019

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



There is a fire coming, and we need to move quickly. Mum and Dad start packing bags, grabbing woollen blankets, the first-aid kit, torches, and then the photo albums. Dad puts Ruby on her lead and ties her up near the back door. My chest feels hollow, like a birdcage.

At first, it was just another hot day as  summer days can be in Victoria, with the heat lingering well into the night. But this hot day turns out to be like no other… For this is February 7, 2009 – a day that is forever etched in Australia’s history as Black Saturday. Over 400 fires took 173 lives and left thousands homeless.  

And sadly, it could have been any one of a number of deadly days of this past summer as fires again tore through the landscape, on a much larger scale devastating homes and lives in every state on an unprecedented scale.  In this particular story, the author draws on much of her personal experience of 10 years ago to tell of the fear, the anguish, the devastation, the unknown but she has changed the ending of one of family tragedy – she knows that story too well – to one of hope and continuity and renewal. 

But this could be the story of so many of our students this year – those who have witnessed the fires first-hand, those who have had to evacuate, those for whom there is no home to go back to; those for whom life is going to be topsy-turvy and very different for a long time to come.  But while it is a bleak story to begin with, one that will stir memories for many, it is that message of connection and continuity, that one day (that might seem too far away just yet) their children may play on land they once called home that can offer succour and strength to try one more day.  And it may be the catalyst for some to open up about their experiences and begin to share and process what they can.

Even if students have not been able to return to their own schools, nevertheless it is the routines of school that are the constants in students’ lives right now so anything we, as teachers, can read, understand and do to support them is so important. Used sensitively at this time, this could be an important part of the help we offer.