A Great Escape

A Great Escape

A Great Escape









A Great Escape

Felice Arena

Puffin, 2019

176pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99


Berlin, August 13, 1961, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US and its allies is at its peak and  Peter is playing with his mates Max and Hubert, ignoring his mother’s requests to come inside because they are leaving to visit the western side of the city, controlled by the Western Allies and entirely surrounded by the Soviet-controlled East Berlin and East Germany. It doesn’t seem like a big deal because Peter can always stay with his grandparents as he frequently does.

But this time things change for overnight the East German authorities start constructing the wall which divided the city for 28 years and Peter finds himself separated from his parents and little sister Margrit as they are unable to return to the East and he can not join them. Guarded by tanks and soldiers with ferocious dogs and who shoot to kill, it seems that Peter will never see his family again.  However, he is determined to escape and despite seeing the fate of most of those who do try, including the body of his best friend’s older brother left caught in the barbed wire as a warning, his resolve to rejoin his parents doesn’t waver.  While he meets new friends Otto and Elke he is scorned by others, including being taunted and beaten by his old friend MAx who considers him to be a traitor for wanting to be reunited with his family.

This is knife-edge reading about a period in time that was the backdrop to the life of a generation and inspired by the author’s visit to Berlin and asking himself, “If the Wall were to be implemented today, and I were separated from my family, what would I do?” He has brought the period and the dilemma of so many to life through Peter and his friends, and created another must-read to go with The Boy and the Spy and Fearless Frederic.  As well as shining a spotlight on a recent period in history that is still fresh in the minds of many of our students’ grandparents who will have seen it, perhaps even been affected by it, it also sets up a number of ethical questions that could lead to some robust discussions.  

Just as with its predecessors, this is a meaty book that will appeal to those who like some real depth to their reading and who are then compelled to find out more about the events and circumstances.  Perfect for independent readers who are a little older and have a sense of history and are interested in the lives of other children in other places in other times.  As Arena asked himself, what would they do if they found themselves in another’s shoes?

Queen Celine

Queen Celine

Queen Celine








Queen Celine

Matt Shanks

Walker Books, 2019

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


Celine Beaufort was an ordinary girl. She did ordinary things, on ordinary days, in ordinary ways. But every now and then, Celine was a Queen, Of a kingdom by the sea.” And while it was difficult to pick just one, Celine had found the perfect rock pool with stunning clear water, a host of creatures but all seemingly threatened by a flock of hungry seagulls.  So to preserve the perfection, Celine scared the birds away and then proceeded to keep her pool pristine and perfect by building a wall that kept the inhabitants in and the intruders, including the tides, out.  But the results were not as she intended… Does she see the error of her actions and fix them, or is she blind to all but her own aspirations?

This beautifully illustrated book has a strong environmental message about maintaining the balance so that things can survive and thrive as dependent on change as they are on stability, as on each other as they are on new blood.  But given the political events in the world at the moment, it could also be used with older students as an allegory for exclusivity and inclusivity as well as what leadership really means.  Another excellent example of showing that picture books just aren’t for beginning readers!


Kensy and Max: Undercover

Kensy and Max: Undercover

Kensy and Max: Undercover









Kensy and Max: Undercover

Jacqueline Harvey

Random House Australia, 2019

400pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99


The third in this series which includes Breaking News and Disappearing Act , twins Kensy and Max have adjusted to the disappearance of their parents, and are comfortable in their new life as part of the important Pharos organisation, headed up by their grandmother, Cordelia. 

In this adventure they are back in London for no time at all before things begin to heat up – quite literally. As a result, Granny Cordelia ships them off to Australia on an undercover mission. The twins find themselves planted in a posh Sydney school where first appearances prove to be deceiving.

What seems like a straightforward assignment turns into something so much bigger. Kensy and Max must employ all their spy skills – the fate of their parents, and who they’ve been searching for, depends on it.

When I gave Miss 12 the first two in this series all other Christmas presents were forgotten as she sat and devoured them, and then re-read them on the long bus trip to the Australian Jamboree near Adelaide just a couple of weeks later. Regardless of what anyone else might say, there is no more powerful review than that of the intended audience and to me, Miss 12, who is a discerning reader, has said it all.

Perfect for your up-and-coming independent readers who want characters they can relate to and events that they can picture themselves being involved in and emerging victorious of course, as they  try to solve the clues as they read and using the mysterious Caesar code to encrypt the chapter headings.


Australian Backyard Earth Scientist

Australian Backyard Earth Scientist

Australian Backyard Earth Scientist










Australian Backyard Earth Scientist

Peter Macinnis

NLA Publishing, 2019

248pp., pbk., RRP $A29.99


Anyone who knows Peter Macinnis, either personally or through his writing, knows that he is passionate about connecting young children with science and this latest contribution to the education of our students sits perfectly alongside his Australian Backyard Explorer and Australian Backyard Naturalist

In it, Macinnis takes the reader on a journey from explaining what earth science is and the earliest beginnings of the planet to the current debate about climate change, stopping along the way to investigate and explain all sorts of things which affect the development, health and performance of the planet like how rain is formed, the various types of rocks that lie beneath our feet, the impact of the currents on life and a zillion other things like why humidity is a critical factor in bushfire season, all tailored to helping young scientists understand what is happening in their own backyard.  It’s not “out there”, it’s right in front of them.  

Using his incessantly curious mind, he ferrets out all sorts of unknown facts and curiosities and then writes about them in a way that makes them so easily readable by his young target audience while giving them all the information they need yet not overloading them with too much detail. He leaves the door open for further investigation from more specialised sources.  The book is richly illustrated with photos, many of his own, diagrams and charts and there are projects to undertake, sections that delve more deeply into a topic, and ‘ologists’ to investigate and inspire.  

But for all the facts and figures and photos, there shines through a deep and abiding respect for this planet and an acute awareness that we must do more to protect it, and it is through young people having the knowledge and understanding about how it works that is likely to make the most difference.  Even though it has a global perspective, readers are inspired to “think global, act local” and examine what it is they can do to make their part of the world a better place for all, such as making a frog pond and keeping a seasonal diary.

If you add one non fiction book to your collection  this year, then this should be it – and if you don’t have the previous two then track them down through the NLA Bookshop.

Teachers’ notes are now available.

The Extraordinary Life of …(series)

The Extraordinary Life of ...(series)

The Extraordinary Life of …(series)








The Extraordinary Life of …(series)

Michelle Obama

Dr Sheila Kanani


Malala Yousafzai

Rita Petralucci


Stephen Hawking

Esther Mols


Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Stephen Hawking …all contemporary heroes who have contributed much more than the average person to making the world a better place and who are the three initial subjects of a new series from Puffin called The Extraordinary Life of…  To be joined in June by Neil Armstrong, Anne Frank and Katherine Johnson, then later in the year by Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Mary Seacole,  this is a new series of biographies for young independent readers introducing them to those who have shaped their world.

Done with a monochromatic theme with lots of line drawings it combines the essential information of each person’s life with significant quotes that encapsulate their philosophy for doing what they do. 

“When someone takes away your pens you realize quite how important education is”.  Malala Yousafzai

“You too can reach your dreams and then your job is to reach back and to help someone just like you, do the same thing. ”  Michelle Obama

“I am happy if I have added something to the understanding of our universe. ” Stephen Hawking.

Three different people doing different things but with a common philosophy that focuses on humanity as a whole.

Written in a style and format that fosters a desire to continue reading rather than dipping and delving to find facts, this series is a way to introduce young readers to biography as a genre and its focus on people whose names may well be familiar to the audience will draw in those who might not yet be aware of this type of non fiction. Thus they are not only learning about the person in focus but discovering a new genre that will open up new reading pathways and perhaps inspire them. While our collections abound with biographies, they might not appeal to young readers so a series that captures the current desire for short bursts of information presented in a non-traditional way deserves serious consideration for adding to your collection. 




DK Life Stories (series)

DK Life Stories

DK Life Stories









DK Life Stories


Diane Bailey


Albert Einstein

Wil Mara


Helen Keller

Libby Romero


Katherine Johnson

Ebony Joy Wilkins


128pp., hbk., RRP $A16.99

At last the people with the power of the purse strings are beginning to realise that not everything is available online, and what is there is unlikely to be at a reading level accessible to our developing readers, and publishers are responding to the resurgence in demand for quality non fiction resources in print format.  While DK have continued to produce quality print materials throughout this misguided era of everything having to be screen-based, their new Life Stories series, biographies for younger readers, is a welcome addition to a genre that can be the entry point to a world of inspiration for a new generation.

Currently comprising about a dozen  titles, including most of the usual subjects found in this sort of series, the one that caught my eye was that of Katherine Johnson, she who is now the famed NASA mathematician and one of the subjects of the best-selling book and movie Hidden Figures. Miss 12 was just awarded her school’s Science and Technology prize for her work in coding and so this is just perfect for inspiring her to maintain her passion and continue to break down barriers as she moves on to high school.  

Using accessible text, photographs and the usual DK production quality, this series tells the stories behind the celebrities bringing them alive for students who now understand that their world is much larger and older than they are and that many have gone before as pioneers, often against incredible odds, so that they can enjoy the life they do.  Perhaps others would eventually have done what Katherine Johnson did, but for Miss 12 who has the self-doubt and mood swings so typical of her age group, it is Katherine’s story of resilience and determination that is as important as her achievements, just as it is for all the others featured in this series, so it is inspirational on many levels.  When she feels overwhelmed, hopefully she will draw on Katherine’s story to find the courage to take the next step.

That sort of engagement doesn’t come from reading a dispassionate fact-and-figures webpage and so this book in particular and the series in general will be a superb addition to both private and school libraries this year.   


47 Degrees

47 Degrees

47 Degrees








47 Degrees

Justin D’Ath

Puffin, 2019

256pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99


Saturday, February 7, 2009 and Victoria wakes to a weather forecast of 47 degrees in Melbourne with strengthening northerly winds, part of the pattern of the previous few days as a heatwave crawls across the state. In the tiny community of Flowerdale,  Zeelie’s dad is enacting the family’s bushfire survival plan to stay and defend their home even though her mum and young brother are in the Emergency Department of a Melbourne hospital because Lachy has fallen off Zeelie’s horse Rimu.

Zeelie’s not sure her dad has made the right decision but even though there is a lot of smoke in the air her dad is convinced that his precautions are just that – precautions, and wherever the fire is, they will be safe. But when Zeelie goes next door to find Atticus, the old dog they are minding for absent neighbours who has wandered home and discovers small fires already started by embers, her fear rises particularly for the welfare of her horse Rimu. And when the generator fails and there is no longer electricity for the water pumps, it is clearly time to leave… but what about Mum and Lachy and Rimu?

Based solidly on his own experiences during those Black Saturday bushfires, Justin D’Ath has woven a tale that could be the story of any one of our students or children who has experienced the very real horror of bushfires.  At a time when adults are frantically busy trying to keep everyone and everything safe, and reassuring their children with what they want them to hear, there is not time to put themselves in their child’s shoes and see the events through their eyes.  When her dad asks her to pack suitcases, Zeelie packs her mum’s wedding dress and evening gowns rather than the more practical things;  she is angry at her mum because she has taken the vehicle with the towbar because she didn’t have enough petrol in hers so Rimu will be left to his own devices … kids focus on the details while the adults are dealing with the big picture and providing an insight into the child’s thinking and fears is what D’Ath has done so skilfully. Because he experienced many of the events that Zeelie does, the story has a unique authenticity and the reader feels the heat, smells the smoke, visualises the flames and empathises with the fear as Zeelie and her dad try all sorts of routes to get to Melbourne, only to be turned back towards the danger because even greater danger lies ahead.  D’Ath deals with the less-than-happy parts sensitively, acknowledging rather than ignoring them, and helping readers deal with the fact that not all things have a sugar-coated happy ending.  

As the 10th anniversary of one of this country’s greatest natural disasters when  173 people died and over 2000 homes were destroyed approaches, this is not only account of the an event that had an impact well beyond those who were caught up in it but also an insight into the what-did-happens and the what-ifs of those who have experienced similar events, providing us with an inkling of the trauma that many of our students might have faced and are still dealing with, critical as the milestone memory will generate a lot of media that could bring a wave of flashbacks and other psychological issues.

However, it is also a story of hope for them because 10 years on Justin is still able to write stories for them despite losing everything himself, and while the immediate future might be bleak, unknown and scary there is clear air coming and because Australians step up in an extraordinary way at these times, they will be OK. 


Let Sleeping Dragons Lie: Have Sword, Will Travel 2

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie: Have Sword, Will Travel 2

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie: Have Sword, Will Travel 2










Let Sleeping Dragons Lie: Have Sword, Will Travel 2

Garth Nix & Sean Williams

Allen & Unwin, 2018

288pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99


Independent readers who are lovers of fantasy, particularly tales of yore, will love this second in the series about Sir Odo and Sir Eleanor.  

First introduced in Have Sword, Will Travel, when Odo and Eleanor stumble upon an ancient sword in a river outside their village, and much to Odo’s dismay he discovers that he’s awoken a famous enchanted blade called Biter, and thus has instantly become a knight, this new adventure begins with an action-packed scene when Sir Odo and Sir Eleanor defend an old man named Egda, a warrior named Hundred  from the bilewolves who have already attacked their village. But Egda and Hundred are not who they appear to be at first sight, and with their trusty and talkative swords, Biter and Runnel, they are plunged into a quest that will take them to unfamiliar lands, where they will fight unseen enemies and unlock unbelievable secrets in order to prevent an unbearable impostor from taking the crown.

Not being a great fantasy fan – Harry Potter and the tales from Middle Earth being my limit – I was nevertheless engaged to the end with this new series by these master storytellers who have written several series in collaboration as well as their independent writing.   So those who like this genre will be more than thrilled with this new release that is exciting, fun, and which could so easily have them as the super hero characters.


Lenny’s Book of Everything

Lenny's Book of Everything

Lenny’s Book of Everything









Lenny’s Book of Everything

Karen Foxlee

Allen & Unwin, 2018

352pp., pbk., RRP $A19.99


On July 26, 1969, six days after man walked on the moon, Cindy Spink caught the Number 28 bus to the hospital where she gave birth to Davey, a brother for three-year-old Lenny.  Right from the start she had a ‘dark heart feeling -as big as the sky but kept in a thimble” that something wasn’t right and so it proved to be.  For, although he was a normal sized baby, Davey kept growing and growing until by the time he was ready to start school he was already 4″5″ (135cm) tall and had been denied entry to preschool because of his height. 

Lenny loves her brother very much but it’s tough being a sister to someone who is a bit different, no matter how lovable, and when your dad has walked out and your mum has to work two jobs just to keep a roof over your head so your eccentric Hungarian neighbour looks after you for much of the time, life can be confusing and conflicting . 

The bright spot every week is the arrival of the latest issue of the Burrell’s Build-It-at-Home Encyclopedia, which their mum won in a competition. Through the encyclopedia, Lenny and Davey experience the wonders of the world – beetles, birds, quasars, quartz – and dream about a life of freedom and adventure. Davey loves the articles about birds of prey while Lenny becomes fixated on beetles and dreams of being a coleopterist.  Together they dream of a life in a log cabin in Great Bear Lake, away from the away from the noisy city and the busy bus station across the road, their strange neighbours and the creepy Mr King. And when the instalments don’t arrive fast enough and the company keeps trying to tempt them to spend money to get issues faster and with the special volume covers, Mrs Spink takes the time to take on the publishers with the letters becoming a side story that shows her persistence and determination to do the best for her kids, regardless of the challenge. 

But as Davey’s health deteriorates, Lenny realises that some wonders can’t be named, but they can be diagnosed and when Davey’s gigantism is traced to tumours in his pituitary gland, in a time when cancer and its treatment were still referred to as “the C word”, the reader knows that there is probably not going to be a happy outcome. 

This is both a heart-warming and heart-wrenching book for older, independent readers, one they can relate to because Lenny’s life is so ordinary and like theirs, yet one that will engender compassion as she struggles to come to terms with what is happening to Davey, not wanting to burden her mother who is “made almost entirely of worries and magic” and who does not realise just how desperately she is missing her dad until she thinks she has found his family. For those who have siblings with significant health issues it may even be cathartic as they realise that the feelings of resentment, even shame, that they sometimes have are natural, common and understandable and they are not evil or undeserving for having them. 

Lenny’s Book of Everything doesn’t just refer to the encyclopedia that opens up the world for her and Davey; it refers to all her thoughts and emotions, reactions and responses of a childhood spent with a sick sibling in a sole-parent family in a poorer neighbourhood of a moon-rock drab town with very little money for everyday things let alone treats. It is raw in places but eminently understandable.  

Written when the author herself was going through a time of momentous grief . it is beautifully written, a compelling read and one that adults will also appreciate. It is a story of joy and heartbreak, humour and honesty, but mostly it’s just about the immense, immeasurable love among families.





The Upside-Down History of Down Under

The Upside-Down History of Down Under

The Upside-Down History of Down Under











The Upside-Down History of Down Under

Alison Lloyd

Terry Denton

Puffin Books, 2018

304pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99



“The story of Australia starts with a piece of land that went for a swim. About 200 million years ago it floated away from Africa. Very   very   slowly.  It was home to dinosaurs and giant animals, then the first Australians showed up.  And for a long time this wild and wonderful land was a mystery to the rest of the world.  Until the English decided it would make the best jail ever.”

When you read a blurb like that on the back of a book, you know you have got something somewhat different from the usual collection of Australian history books populating your 994 section, and indeed, different it is.  Spanning that time when the ancient continents split till Federation in 1901, this book tells the history of this continent in a quirky way with a narrative that speaks to the reader in short chapters with engaging headings and lots of the sorts of illustrations that are so uniquely Terry Denton.  It tells stories that are unfamiliar, challenges some long-held beliefs, and explores that which helped shaped 2018 Australia in a way that not only captures the imagination but makes the reader want to delve deeper.

Imagine, for instance, starting a study of the crossing of the Blue Mountains, with the sentence, “In 1813, three British gentlemen, Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Wentworth, took four of their servants and four of their dogs out for a long mountain walk.” Or exploring the whaling industry under the title “How Australia got stinking rich”. 

So many of our students groan at the thought of studying history, seeing it as having no relevance to their personal lives, and having been exposed to the “If it’s Year 5, it’s the Gold Rush” version of the curriculum, dry, dull and done-to-death. But if that same topic was embedded in a geological study of the formation of the gold, as alluded to in All that Glitters is Gold and followed up with the meaning of “golden soil and wealth for toil” it may well spark greater interest. 

Why is gold so valued that people left all they knew and loved in a quest to find it? Why did the NSW government try to hide Edmund Hargreaves’ discovery? How was the Australian 2018 way of life shaped by those who were grubbing in the dirt 160 years ago?

This book is excellent for being the appetiser for the main meal – offering tasty tidbits that tantalise the tongue and make the reader want to indulge further.  It’s a way of serving our history to our students which, in the hands of a skilful cook or even a dedicated diner, will open new worlds and new understandings that shows the broad spread of what has gone before. 

To add to the experience, there is a wealth of support materials available on the author’s website.