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. 
















Sarah Darwin, Eva Maria Sadowski

Olga Baumert

What on Earth Books, 2023

64pp., hbk., RRP $A39.99


Since human life emerged on this planet, people have speculated on how it all began with many communities developing creation stories to explain what they didn’t know or understand – stories that still guide life today in some places.  But in the mid 1800s, two scientists – Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace – independently developed a theory known as evolution by natural selection,  and in this easily accessible, beautifully illustrated book, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin explains the theory –  what it is and how it works.

Feature spreads explain the important things that you need to know, a timeline plots the history of life on Earth., maps and charts show the Tree of Life, and extensive back matter includes a glossary, and index, a bibliography and the whole is backed by both the Natural History Museum in London and the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin making it a model of authoritative presentation. As well as what has gone before, there are also sections on how humans have changed their own worlds, how evolution continues to influence adaptation and survival and a suggestion as to what the future holds, as long as we are willing to learn from the past.  

As well as being an excellent introduction to the history of life on this planet spanning 4.5 billion years, this is also an important addition to both the environment and sustainability curriculum and collection because “The better we understand evolution, the better we can protect the planet”.



Ancestory: The Mystery and Majesty of Ancient Cave Art

Ancestory: The Mystery and Majesty of Ancient Cave Art

Ancestory: The Mystery and Majesty of Ancient Cave Art












Ancestory: The Mystery and Majesty of Ancient Cave Art

Hannah Salyer

Clarion Books, 2023

48pp., hbk., RRP $A19.99


Give a child a flat space and the means to make a mark and that is exactly what they will do.  And not only will they make marks but there will be a story that goes along with them, one that the child can visualise and tell in greater detail than the marks can depict and the viewer can ascertain. 

And from this stunning and intriguing book we learn that such activity is almost instinctual as it traces human history and “the lives, dreams and stories of our ancient ancestors” through the images portrayed in rock art. From the earliest known markings – those of prehistoric man discovered in the Biombos Cave, South Africa – these time capsules demonstrate the vital information and connections made between peoples around the globe who, despite the difficulties and dangers they faced daily still took the time to create, even though each etching might have taken many days and many people to complete.  From the making of tools to make a mark to the choice of medium to use as an enduring pigment, the effort to create these becomes apparent and underlines their historic importance, with a strong message of why they need to be both appreciated and  preserved.   

With its clever title, Ancestory takes the reader on a short journey of a long period showing how the creation of pictorial works is an integral part of who we are, and then, in the final pages, offers more detailed insight including links to more information for those who want to know more, making this a book that spans not only its topic but also age groups and the curriculum.  While young readers are often fascinated by the lives of the “cavemen”, older visual arts students can also discover much that will satisfy the upper bands of the Australian Curriculum. 


Cosmic Wonder: Halley’s Comet and Humankind

Cosmic Wonder: Halley's Comet and Humankind

Cosmic Wonder: Halley’s Comet and Humankind












Cosmic Wonder: Halley’s Comet and Humankind

Ashley Benham-Yazdani

Candlewick Press, 2023

40pp., hbk., RRP $A34.99


Over 4.6 billion years ago,  about the same time the rest of our solar system was created, a comet was born – one that now visits this planet on its long orbit around the planets and the sun and beyond, only once is a person’s lifetime.  Unlike many others that are comparatively short-lived because they lose ice and debris each time they pass a star, this one has survived and for those lucky enough to be alive in 2061 it will light up our skies once again.

Named after the Edward Halley, the astronomer and mathematician who calculated that the comets that had been seen in the skies in 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one and the same and accurately predicted that it would return in 1758, Halley’s Comet has been orbiting since time immemorial, the last time being in 1986.  During that time it has seen so many changes on this planet as humans developed and with their curiosity and creativity have transformed it.

Essentially then, this is a history of Earth seen from the comet’s perspective as it makes its regular sweeps told in simple, almost lyrical, language and depicted in stunning artworks.  Tracing the changes (which are summarised in the final pages) it tells the story of the planet’s development from a time when nothing and no one saw it light up the night sky to that of a lone teacher fascinated by it perched like Humpty Dumpty on a wall in her garden  in 1986.  (I have no idea why scaling a 2 metre wall would give me a better view but there I was…)

As well as giving the reader a unique perspective on history, showing us just how small we are and how short our time here is, this is one not only to explore the other bodies in the universe but also to consider what the comet might see when it returns in 2061, provoking all sorts of textual and artistic responses.  What would they like it to see? They might even consider what their contribution to those changes might be. 

Innovative and visually outstanding, this is such a different way to view the world that it will capture not only those budding astronomers but also those who dream and wonder and imagine… Another reason to have a rich and vibrant non fiction collection. 

Our Country: Where History Happened

Our Country: Where History Happened

Our Country: Where History Happened











Our Country: Where History Happened

Mark Greenwood

Frané Lessac

Walker , 2023

40pp., hbk., RRP $A26.99


In the first book in this series, the creators took readers on a journey to the ancient wonders of this land – landscapes and landshapes that have existed for billions of years. Now, they have put its people in the picture, tracing some of the significant events that have shaped the life lived today.

Beginning with the statement, “The story of our country is told in stone”, the reader begins their new journey with a visit to Ubirr in the Northern Territory, one of over 100 000 important rock art sites around Australia that pass on the historical, cultural and spiritual knowledge of Australia’s First Nations peoples.  They then move on to the significance of a pewter plate with a chiselled inscription nailed to a post in 1616 in Western Australia, showing that the story of this country can be told through pictures and words, artefacts and mementos just as much as it is through observed and lived events.   The journey continues through a timeline of other important events – mapped out on the front endpaper – each including that basic statement,  a broad explanation with language reminiscent of a tourist brochure as well as a brief, fact-filled paragraph about the event itself.   And all set against a backdrop of Frané Lessac’s stunning artwork! Then, acknowledging that there is much more to this story than can be covered in a picture book, the final endpaper has a different timeline of other critical events inviting the reader to find out more and perhaps even produce their own entry for the book. 

Younger students are often challenged by the relevance of having to study that which has happened before their time, particularly as their maturity level has them living in the here-and-now exacerbated by the instant connectivity the internet offers, and so this book is the most attractive and engaging way to introduce them to the concept of times past and how those times have shaped their here-and-now.  Would we have had the recent Voice referendum, even the daily Acknowledgement of Country, if not for the work of Eddie Mabo?  Would they have even been born in Australia if not for the impact of World War II on Europe and the waves of migrants who sought a new life here? 

As well as being a must-have entry level book to learning about the history of the country they live in, the content, format and potential of this book ensures its inclusion in collections spanning all ages and abilities especially if students are old enough to step beyond what happened and consider what if… If Dirk Hartog had done more than nail a plate to a post and claimed this country for the Dutch; if French captain de Surville had turned west to investigate the land his crew claimed they could smell five months before Captain Cook claimed the continent for England… 

History in the form of facts and figures, dates long gone and people long dead, can be greeted with a groan by many, but this series with its engaging format and just the right amount of information to bring it into the realm of the reader has the power and potential to grab the imagination and spark a desire to learn more.  It epitomises the theme Australia: Story Country.













Neridah McMullin

Michael Tomkins

Walker 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A26.99


Click go the shears, boys — click, click, click,
Wide is his blow and his hands move quick,
The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow,
And curses the old snagger with the bare-bellied yoe.

Click Go the Shears is one of those traditional Australian songs that our children learn about the same time they learn the iconic Waltzing Matilda. But while the origins and meaning of that song are learned alongside the lyrics, what is the story behind some of the strange words and phrases in the shearing song?  Surely sheep are shorn using machinery.

But before Frederick Wolseley perfected his invention of mechanical shears in 1888 – a design 25 years in the making – sheep were shorn with hand or blade shears requiring great skill and considerable strength in the hand, arm and back and then, as now, it was one of the most physically demanding jobs as far as stress to the human body according to a 2000 report by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. 

Iconic images of the 19th century shearing shed. Shearing the Rams (top) and The Golden Fleece (bottom) both by Tom Roberts.

Iconic images of the 19th century shearing shed. Shearing the Rams (top) and The Golden Fleece (bottom) both by Tom Roberts.

Shearers travelled from woolshed to woolshed as wool became one of the most valuable resources of the Australian economy, particularly as gold discoveries dwindled, and among those men, was Jack Howe who had “hands the size of tennis racquets, legs like tree trunks and wrists made of steel”. 

Shearer is the story of the day Howe sheared a record 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 mins at Alice Downs Station in Blackall, using blade shears, bringing to life the story of a man still regarded as Australia’s greatest shearer and after whom, the iconic navy blue singlet of the tradie is named.  

With her books Eat My Dust, and Drover  and the upcoming Tearaway Coach, Neridah McMullin is becoming known for telling the stories of those who have had a significant impact on Australian life, particularly that of rural communities, and thus opening up all sorts of opportunities to explore further.  Shearer continues this tradition, particularly as attendances at shows that bring the country to the city continue to break records and shearing demonstrations attract huge crowds.

For a century Australia “rode on the sheep’s back” and this book gives readers, young and older, an entry point to investigate the hows and whys of this common saying. 

A First Book of Dinosaurs

A First Book of Dinosaurs

A First Book of Dinosaurs











A First Book of Dinosaurs

Simon Mole

Matt Hunt

Walker Books, 2023

80pp., hbk., RRP $A39.99


It was an era that lasted about 180 million years over 66 million years ago and yet it still fascinates old and young alike, so much so that books about dinosaurs – fact or fiction – are regularly published for an eager audience. This one, written for an adult to share with a younger reader is one of the latest. 

Bold, contemporary illustrations and short poems with vivid language introduce young readers to this world of “eat or be eaten” . Divided into the chapters of ‘Meet the Dinosaurs, Eat or be Eaten, Dinosaur Families and The End. OR is it?’, each dinosaur or theme has its own double page spread with lively, unique graphics and a short poem, often in the voice of the dinosaur itself. Some like brachiosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex will be familiar but others such as halszkaraptor and therizinosaurus will be new so the pronunciation guide is handy, and although the descriptions – using a variety of poetry styles – are brief, there is enough information to inspire further research for those who want to know more, as well as offering an opportunity for older students to compare Mole’s style with the more traditional fact-and-figures books. 

Something new and unique to share about something old and common.















Duncan Smith & Nicole Godwin

Jandamarra Cadd

Wild Dog, 2023

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


Listen, and you will hear the voices of Ancestors.

At a time when there is such an important focus on Australia’s First Nations peoples,  this is a timely release to help students better understand the need for the referendum, where it has come from and what it is based on. 

Accompanied by the stunning artworks of Yorta Yorta man Jandamarra Cadd, each of which has its own story and significance, this is a book that has the minim um of text but the maximum of meaning.  While our students may have some knowledge and awareness of the importance of Country to indigenous people, this book explains the weight behind the acknowledgement of the phrase “elders, past, present and emerging” that is expressed in any Welcome to Country address.

This is a book that should not be shared without also using the teachers’ notes because they provide critical background information…

The Uluru Statement from the Heart
Key elements from the Uluru Statement from the Heart underpins the text … The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to all Australians to walk together towards a better future. It provides a roadmap with three key pillars – Voice, Treaty and Truth.

It explains why and what The Voice is, why it requires a referendum to be put in place, and what it will achieve if the referendum is successful.

But beyond that, it also has a strong element of text-to-self as readers are encouraged to consider the hopes and dreams of the children on the front cover and relate that to their own, while also having them investigate the Country they live on, its indigenous languages and stories. 

 If the referendum is unsuccessful, it is unlikely to be the end of the narrative of the requests and rights of our First Nations people to be recognised, so this book, in conjunction with We are Australians should form the core of a modern indigenous library collection as well as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures strand of the curriculum.

Together, they are a powerful and essential resource on which to base positive change for the future. 

If Our World Were 100 Days

If Our World Were 100 Days

If Our World Were 100 Days











If Our World Were 100 Days

Jackie McCann

Aaron Cushley

Farshore, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A19.99


If the last 10 000 years of human development were condensed into 100 days, it is hard to realise that it would be only 54 days ago that the first formal writing system was created and only six hours ago that the first text message was sent!

Time, particularly history, is one of the hardest concepts for little people to grasp because their lack of maturity keeps them in the here and now, and thus the concept of 10 000 years is impossible to understand.  But in this new book that uses the format of condensing things in 100 elements such as animal species or  groups of people, the numbers, proportions and statistics become more manageable.

Like its predecessors, it uses double-page spreads, clever illustrations and graphic design elements to chart the timeline of significant developments in humankind such as population growth, the evolution of the wheel, even the creation of cures for a headache. It includes a timeline that summarises the major events and discoveries included as well as inviting the reader to contemplate whether the progress has been entirely beneficial and where the world might be in 100 days from now, offering scope for the science fiction fans to let their imaginations loose.  Older readers might like to investigate the Doomsday Clock, its meaning and implications.

As well as offering students the opportunity to explore and explain the development of something that they, themselves,  are interested in and presenting their findings in a similar format, it is also an excellent way to talk about data collection, interpretation and presentation, and the use of visuals to convey complex ideas, all important aspects of being information literate, while, at the same time, helping them understand that elusive concept of time.  


The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle











The Gargoyle

Zana Fraillon

Lothian, 2023

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


Forced off his rooftop to make way for a new urban development in a barren cityscape, the old gargoyle packs a battered suitcase and boards a train going who knows where. But he is unseen to all those who are packed on it, except for a child  who has the time and the presence to ponder the gargoyle’s story…

He’s old, this gargoyle. Very old. Older than me. Older than anyone. He looks tired. If I had a seat, I would give it to him.

He shuffles past me and stands near the door and watches the city smushing past.

I think I hear him sigh. An echoey, achy, hollow sort of sigh, like the wind when it gusts down lanes and through tunnels and in and out of the big drains that stretch under the city.

Invisible to all who are so engrossed in what is to come that they don’t see the here and now, except for the ticket collector who forces him off the train when he cannot produce a ticket, the gargoyle is a forlorn sight, testament to the often unnoticed and ignored elderly, disabled and homeless among us.  But he leaves his suitcase behind and when the child, overcome by curiosity and compassion, opens the case he unleashes the gargoyle’s many memories of the city and its inhabitants. When the case crumbles, leaving nothing but a small seed, the child decides to find a place to bring the gargoyle, and the soul of the city, back.

This is a poignant picture book that works on many levels both for younger and older students as they explore it, each visit exposing something different.  For example, on a literal level, the meaning and history of “gargoyles” could be investigated  to build vocabulary and children could be encouraged to not only identify structures in their town that feature them but also learn architecturally related words such as buttress and belfry, perhaps even compare modern and bygone construction styles and methods.   

Others might like to consider what memories are contained in the gargoyle’s case, and if he were a gargoyle from one of their town’s structures, what changes and events might he have seen and packed into that case.

Older readers who can dig deeper into the messages that lie beyond the words might look more at the humanitarian issues that are addressed- the trials and tribulation of ageing and how those who are in their senior years become invisible and often ignored as though they no longer have anything  to contribute; the way buildings and structures are often valued and preserved more than those who constructed them; the destruction of those buildings in the ever-growing need for quick-fix housing; the knowledge and memories of people and places past that could be drawn on to build a better future so the same mistakes are not repeated; society’s attitudes towards and treatment of the homeless… And having examined those issues, consider and plan what might grow from the seed that the boy plants.

Teachers’ notes offer discussion points about these as well as ideas for exploring its language, literary devices and visual literacy – both the author’s and illustrator’s notes add much – but the lingering emotion for the reader is one of empathy and compassion, of a desire to acknowledge and celebrate the legacies of those who have gone before us and consider the legacy that we, ourselves, might leave. 

I do expect to see this among the award winners of the upcoming year.