Three Tasks for a Dragon

Three Tasks for a Dragon

Three Tasks for a Dragon













Three Tasks for a Dragon

Eoin Colfer

P. J. Lynch

Walker Books, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A32.99


After his father’s ‘accidental’ death at sea, his stepmother Queen Nimh and stepbrother Prince Delbayne invoke ancient Lagin law that only those who can summon the mysterious wolfhounds can become king, and Prince Lir is to be banished from his beloved homeland forever. The prince is a scholar not a warrior and acquiesces to his fate, but in an apparent act of generosity, Prince Delbayne pleads his stepbrother’s case and it is agreed that if Prince Lir can complete an ancient quest he will be able to return. 

Thus Prince Lir finds himself on a mission to rescue a young maiden being held captive by the dragon Lasvarg on his island, not realising that it is all part of a devious, malicious plan and dark magic concocted by his not-so-nice brother to ensure that Lir never returns to assume his place on the throne… But then, Delbayne does not realise that brains can overcome brawn… 

Created by two who have each been the Irish children’s laureate, this is a story reminiscent of the quests of old, drawing the reader into the fantasy of kings and queens and dragons and maidens needing to be rescued  with its twists and turns in the plot while its superb illustrations bring times gone by to life.  You can almost envisage this as a Lord of the Rings-esque movie, and while it has the traditional good versus evil as its underlying theme, because Prince Lir keeps his father’s words “The trick to it… is to work with what is around you,” it has a refreshing new perspective because rather than trying to trick the dragon and kill it to save Cethlenn, Lir uses his brains to cure the dragon’s ailments caused by the mould in his damp cave, mend his broken wing, and restore his fire-breathing powers,

, forming a partnership that eventually outwits and outlasts Nimh, Delbayne and even Lagin itself..

This is an illustrated novella that would make an ideal introduction to this genre as a read-aloud merging the traditional elements and feel of the classic quest with more modern themes.  


Miss Penny Dreadful and the Mermaid’s Locks

Miss Penny Dreadful and the Mermaid's Locks

Miss Penny Dreadful and the Mermaid’s Locks












Miss Penny Dreadful and the Mermaid’s Locks

Allison Rushby

Walker Books, 2023

160pp., pbk., RRP $A15.99


1872 and although Penny Pickering  has often dreamed of being taken away from Miss Strickland’s School for Girls of an Enquiring Mind by her Aunt Harriet who writes very popular short stories known as “penny dreadfuls” (hence the nickname other girls in the school have given Penny), she is most surprised when it actually happens and she finds herself embroiled in curious mysteries which, with her enquiring mind guided by the echoes of Miss Strickland’s words, she is able to solve.

But this time, in the final episode in the series, instead of being focused on bewitched kittens, malicious mazes  or even her aunt’s new obsession of the appearance of a mermaid in the Thames, Penny is determined to use her logical mind to discover the whereabouts of her missing parents.   She has deduced that their departure was not planned; that they had disagreed with Aunt Harriet about her signing a new contract with the suspicious Mr Cowley and a planned publicity trip to the USA;  that the postcards she has received are dodgy; that Mr Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshaw) is not the solicitor he purports to be and the weasel-like man she has seen with Cowley has something to do with the disappearance.  But what is the connection between these things, how can she uncover it and will she do it in time before the new contract is signed?

Young, independent readers who like mysteries, particularly those set in times past, will thoroughly enjoy this short series as they put themselves in Penny’ place and try to solve the mystery before she does.  

Silver Linings

Silver Linings

Silver Linings











Silver Linings

Katrina Nannestad

ABC Books, 2023

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


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.         

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. 


What You Need to Be Warm

What You Need to Be Warm

What You Need to Be Warm











What You Need to Be Warm

Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2023

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


I have neither the desire or the skill to review this book because anything I say or write pales into insignificance in the presence of the wondrous Neil Gaiman. Thus I am going to use the foreword and the publisher’s notes to show what this book is about and why I immediately recommended it to colleagues who were seeking just such a piece…

in 2019, before COVID, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the current Israeli conflict, winter was coming to the northern hemisphere and people were going to be cold , especially people who didn’t have homes because they had fled the fighting in their countries or their homes, often their villages and towns, had been destroyed.  To draw attention to their plight Neil Gaiman asked his social media followers  what reminded them of warmth.  And from the tens of thousands of replies, each with a specific memory, he wove the responses into a long green scarf, so symbolic of being snuggled in warmth, and into a poem that became a film and now a book illustrated by people like Chris Riddell, Benji Davies, Yuliya Gwilym, Nadine Kaadan, Daniel Egnéus, Pam Smy, Petr Horácek, Beth Suzanna, Bagram Ibatoulline, Marie-Alice Harel, Majid Adin and Richard Jones, with a thought-provoking cover from Oliver Jeffers.

It is  “an exploration of displacement and flight from conflict through the objects and memories that represent warmth in cold times. It is about our right to feel safe, whoever we are and wherever we are from, and about welcoming those who find themselves far from home. “

Sadly, in 2023, winter is again coming to the northern hemisphere and more people than ever are without a home, or warmth whether that’s wrapping your hands around a baked potato on a winter’s night or wrapping yourself in a blanket knitted by your grandmother or just the warmth of feeling safe indoors, so sales of every copy of this book will help support the work of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which helps forcibly displaced communities and stateless people across the world.

And if you want to do more, check out Wrap With Love and perhaps start a knitting group in the new year.

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.

Riz Chester: The Fingerprint Code

Riz Chester: The Fingerprint Code

Riz Chester: The Fingerprint Code











Riz Chester: The Fingerprint Code

R. A. Stephens

E. Hammond

Wombat Books, 2023

90pp., pbk., RRP $A12.99


Riz Chester has highly tuned senses and notices things that most people don’t, such as the brand of cheese being changed in the tuckshop lunches, the 10gram change in the size of the packets of chips, and the differences between identical twins Sabrina and Jenny.  She keeps a note of the differences in her Weird Stuff Log because when she mentions them, people look at her funny.  

But, by using her observation skills and logical thinking, she was able to detect counterfeit $10 notes in the first in this series for newly independent readers, and in this episode once again she  demonstrates the value of planning, thinking logically and recording what you discover in an organised way as she tries to determine who could have stolen a baby grand piano from the school’s music room.

This time the forensic focus is fingerprints and there is more information about this at the end of the book, enabling students to understand why they leave unique markers all the time that science is beginning to unravel with greater depth and accuracy every day.

There are lots of series published for this age group, but this one particularly appeals to me because of its emphasis on the need to approach a problem in a clear, methodical way thus brining into play all those skills of the information literacy process.  What has happened? What do we know? What do we need to find out? How can we find that out? What would be the best tools to use? How do we use them? Do I need help using them…  

Ultrawild: An Audacious Plan for Rewilding Every City on Earth


Ultrawild: An Audacious Plan for Rewilding Every City on Earth











Ultrawild: An Audacious Plan for Rewilding Every City on Earth

Steve Mushin

A & U Children’s, 2023

80pp., hbk., RRP $A34.99


When the introduction to a book is entitled ” Ludicrous Ideas are Bootcamp for Brains” then you know you have something that is going to be out there and it’s going to appeal to your wild thinkers, your madcap inventors and all those other kids who dwell in the Land of What If?

This is a most unusual book in both format and content and yet it is also most intriguing.  The author himself says that he had been having “outlandish ideas” for as long as he can remember, some successful, some not-so, but he is on a mission to “crush climate change by transforming every city on Earth into a jungle (or whatever other type of ecosystem it was before humans trashed it)”.

So in a comic-like format that follows his thought processes, he designs habitat-printing robot birds and water-filtering sewer submarines, calculates how far compost cannons can blast seed bombs (over a kilometre), brainstorms biomaterials with scientists and engineers, studies ecosystems and develops a deadly serious plan to transform cities into jungles, rewilding them into carbon-sucking mega-habitats for all species, and as fast as possible. But, as a highly-respected industrial designer, artist and inventor these are not the random machinations of a child’s wildest dreams, but serious collaborations with scientists and others who are concerned about the planet and which incorporate futuristic materials and foods, bio reactors, soil, forest ecosystems, mechanical flight, solar thermal power and working out just how fast we could actually turn roads into jungles, absorb carbon and reverse climate change. Each project has been researched and while not yet necessarily put into practice, each is theoretically possible and some are already happening,

A peek inside...

A peek inside…

Underpinned by quotes from those who have gone before including 14th century philosopher William of Ockham who said that “the simplest solution is almost always the best” (Occam’s razor) this is one to inspire all those who are concerned about climate change but who want and need to do more than reduce their personal use of plastic and who can see that doing what has always been done might not work in time, let alone be successful. It validates the wacky and the wild ideas some students have and encourages them to go even further.