Small Town

Small Town

Small Town











Small Town

Phillip Gwynne

Tony Flowers

Puffin, 2020

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


Milly loves her little town – in fact it is so nice, they named it twice.  But sadly, others don’t find it as attractive and fulfilling and families keep moving to the city.  Within just a short time her basketball team comprising the four Chloes and Milly shrinks as both Chloe P and Chloe B leave – they might even have to let the boys play!

But then Milly learns about the refugees who have had to leave their own countries and who have nothing – and she has an idea.  Can one letter and a video made by Granny Mac save the town?

This is a unique, charming story about the resourcefulness and resilience of a young girl who sees an opportunity and acts on it.  Echoing the plight of many little towns in this vast country as the appeal and perceived opportunities of the cities beckon, Gong Gong could almost be renamed Anytown, Australia and its scenery, so artfully depicted by Tony Flowers will be recognisable everywhere. But not every town has a Milly who really just wants more players for the basketball team but starts a change that will turn empty houses into homes once more and vacant shopfronts into hubs of employment and breathe new life into a community looking for a focus.

With the story echoing those of many places such as Nhill in Victoria, but making a child the protagonist, Phillip Gwynne has put a national issue into the realm of children’s understanding perhaps sparking the imagination of some other child looking to bolster their sports team.  

Compelling reading that may start something, particularly as we emerge from lockdown and look for alternatives to crowded city life.

The Caveman Next Door

The Caveman Next Door

The Caveman Next Door









The Caveman Next Door

Tom Tinn-Disbury

New Frontier, 2019

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


Penny’s street and home were just like any others until a caveman moved into an empty lot next door.  A caveman who cooked his meals outside, didn’t have a TV, didn’t wear socks and whose furniture (what there was of it) was made of sticks and stones. And he didn’t speak English – all he could do was grunt.

One day after school, Penny decided to show him around the neighbourhood – the library, the bus, the park, a restaurant… But wherever they went, and no matter how hard he tried, Ogg didn’t know what to do or how to act and they were shown the door of every place. Until Penny took him to her school…

It’s hard enough fitting into a new neighbourhood when you speak the language and have mastered the social niceties, but to do so without either of these like Ogg, must be overwhelming and daunting.  And yet, with our multicultural and global perspective that welcomes people from all over the world, this must be a common experience for many.  While the children are able to go to school, make friends, learn the language and the expectations, parents, particularly mums, are left at home isolated, mixing only with others who share their lifestyle and so a vicious cycle of exclusion and racism begins.  While Ogg’s attempts to do the right thing are funny, there is an underlying pathos at his awkwardness and also a sadness at the actions of those who object to his actions.  Only at school does he find compassion.  

Using a caveman analogy to bring awareness to the issues of being different is clever because not only does it highlight just how hard it can be, no one can criticise the author for being insensitive towards one group or another.  It certainly opens up the opportunities for discussions about how we respond to newcomers and identifying those things peculiar to us that they might have difficulty adjusting to as well as putting the students in Ogg’s shoes.  With space travel on the horizon, what if they went to Mars to live and found there were indeed Martians…?

While the theme of being different, fitting in and accepting others is common in children’s picture book, even though it might be expressed in a unique way each time, the more often we expose our students to these sorts of stories and talk about them, provoke their thinking and even develop strategies to embrace all, then the better and stronger the communities we build will be.  Strong, united communities are the key to a peaceful, harmonious future if we are to move beyond the current, nationalistic “our best interests” philosophy and look at what is good for humanity as a whole.

The Voyage

The Voyage

The Voyage










The Voyage

Robert Vescio

Amanda Edmonds

EK Books, 2019

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


Fourteen words. If books were priced based on the number of words the story had, then you would probably ask for your money back with this one, but those 14 words document a life-changing episode in one family – a family that could be any one of a number of those whose children we teach and will teach as conflict continues to circle the world. Just fourteen words to tell such a story that are more powerful than if there were 10 or 100 times that many. 

War displaces the family and their pet duck and so they must escape on a boat into the unknown. At first there is the CHAOS of the conflict; then there is the WILD ocean as a storm tosses the boat and overturns it;but BEAUTY awaits as they finally sight land ahead and at last they are SAFE.

But words alone are not enough and it is the remarkable and powerful watercolour illustrations that meld with those 14 words to tell an all-too familiar story of despair, hope, courage, resilience and joy. In fact, more mature readers might be able to empathise with the family and retell the story using an emotion for each page, perhaps sparking greater understanding and compassion  for their peers who have lived the nightmare.  But while those illustrations have strong words to convey, they have soft lines and gentle colours so the humanity and reality of the people is maintained and the reader is not turned off by page after page of darkness.. Again, older students could compare the illustrations and mood of this book with those of the 2019 CBCA Honours Book The Mediterranean

Accompanying notes tell us that both author and illustrator were driven by the need to tell what is becoming a common story so that there is greater understanding and compassion amongst those whose lives are less traumatic and through that, build stronger, more cohesive communities so that life is better, enriched and enhanced for everyone. Edmonds deliberately chose a Middle Eastern family as her centrepiece because of the richness of the culture so that the reader can appreciate the depth and meaning of what is being left behind – the dilemma  of leaving  all that is known and loved for the uncertainty of the unknown and the heartache and danger that either choice will bring.

Beyond the storyline itself, this is a book that so clearly demonstrates the critical, integral relationship between text and illustration, that a picture really is “worth a thousand words” , and often the picture book format is the most powerful way to tell a story.

Look for this one in the 2020 awards lists.


A Home for Luna

A Home for Luna

A Home for Luna










A Home for Luna

Stef Gemmill

Mel Armstrong

New Frontier, 2019

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


On a cold, moonlit night a dark crate washes up on a lonely shore, and out crawls a bedraggled, lonely cat, wary of her surroundings so different from the home she remembers, but glad to be out of the ceaseless motion of the sea.  As daylight creeps up, she woke and looked around only to find herself among creatures that didn’t look like anything she had seen, certainly not cats, but the familiar fishy smell drew her forward. 

Too tired to move, she lay on the rocks watching the penguins swim and return with fish, making her tummy rumbled.  And then one of them approached her… is this a friendly move or one fraught with fear?

Mel Armstrong, an experienced illustrator making her children’s book debut, has created bold illustrations which suggest that Luna is  no weak, wimpy cat and so the reader expects that this story is going to go well beyond that initial meeting and that conflict or camaraderie. there is some meat to it.

On the surface, this is a simple story about two creatures forming an unlikely friendship, one that reaches a climax when humans arrive at the colony and decide that it is no place for a cat.  But looking beneath the surface, could it be the story of a refugee arriving in a strange land amongst strange people, and being accepted just for who they are, rather than anything else?  And a government making a determination about their suitability to stay?  Or am I viewing it through the lens of so many news stories about worthy people facing deportation, so much so my views of a children’s story have been tainted and I see allegory each time I read a story like this?  Whichever, it is refreshing to read one that is about resilience and hope and which has the sort of ending we would all wish for, whether it’s a cat washed ashore or a person. 

Read more about the story behind the story here

A peek inside...

A peek inside…












Tristan Bancks

Puffin, 2019

240pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99


Sima and her family are pressed to the rough, cold ground among fifty others. They lie next to the tall fence designed to keep them in. The wires are cut one by one. 

When they make their escape, a guard raises the alarm. Shouting, smoke bombs, people tackled to the ground. In the chaos Sima loses her parents. 

Dad told her to run, so she does, hiding in a school and triggering a lockdown. A boy, Dan, finds her hiding in the toilet block. 

What should he do? Help her? Dob her in? She’s breaking the law, but is it right to lock kids up? And if he helps, should Sima trust him? Or run?

Whatever decisions are made will change their lives forever.

With the rise and spread of nationalist, right-wing conservative governments around the globe, xenophobia is alive and well in communities and countries around the world. In Australia it is always a hot topic particularly around election time and especially since former prime minister John Howard declared, “It’s about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open hearted people, taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” in an election speech just weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Centre buildings in 2001.

Having just had another federal election with the rhetoric of asylum seekers, detention centres and people’s rights claiming a lot of media space and votes, this new book from Tristan Bancks is very timely. In it, through the students in the Reading Superstars class and their teacher Miss Aston, he asks the questions that need to be considered about the plight of refugees, particularly as much of what the children say is the echo of their parents’ perspectives. Bancks says he has tried to tell the story as “a human one, rather than a political one” and he has achieved this as the reader becomes very invested in the plights of Simi and Dan and constantly wonders what would they do if they were either of those characters.

In my opinion, the greatest power of this book is in the hands of a class teacher reading it aloud and discussing the issues as Miss Aston does while she and her charges are in lockdown. That way, a range of points of view can be explored and explained, taking the story to a whole new level, rather than being an individual read that throws up questions but for which the reader doesn’t seek answers. And that teacher should be prepared to answer the inevitable, “What would you do if you were Miss Aston?”

Books for this age group are rarely the focus of reviews on this blog, but I believe that this is such an essential read as part of any study about migration and refugees, it deserves all the publicity it can get. Superb.



Grandma’s Treasured Shoes

Grandma's Treasured Shoes

Grandma’s Treasured Shoes










Grandma’s Treasured Shoes

Coral Vass

Christina Huynh

NLA Publishing, 2019

36pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99


Grandma has oodles and oodles of shoes.

Walk to the park shoes

Dance in the dark shoes

Fun shoes and sun shoes

Out and about shoes

Splash in the rain shoes

Fancy shoes, 

Plain shoes,

But her favourite shoes 

Are her worn and torn shoes

From a time long ago

And a land far away. 

For they are the shoes of her childhood in wartorn Vietnam, a time when her childhood was like that of others until the night she and her family have to flee with just the shoes on their feet.  They are shoes that take her on a terrifying journey to a new land where she is given new shoes to wear.  But she never forgets or discards those old shows with the memories and stories they hold for her.

Beginning with a rhyme and rhythm reminiscent of Frida Wolfe’s poem Choosing Shoes , this is a story that could be that of the grandmother or grandfather of any number of our students who have come to Australia as refugees, but in particular those who fled the Viet Cong and arrived here in boats in the 1970s. (But not always to the welcome that Grandma gets.) Using the shoes as a vehicle to tell the story of the fear and the flight, both author and illustrator have introduced the young reader to the story of refugees in a sensitive, non-confrontational way.  They have put themselves in the shoes of those who have had to flee their countries and imagined that regardless of the country, “that each shoe would have a different tale of danger, hardship, sacrifice and the cost of freedom to tell.”

This approach is rich in possibilities for a wide age group – children could tell the story of their shoes’ daily journey while those who have been in Grandma’s situation might feel comfortable about telling their story through the perspective of their shoes.  It could also serve as a lead-in to a series of lessons about perspective and how the different role a person has in a situation alters how the story is told. For example, what might be the glass slipper’s version of the Cinderella story? In a time when immigration is once more in the news as the tragedy in Christchurch starts debates again, older students might even examine the different responses by those such as Jacinda Ardern (#theyareus) and Donald Trump (building the wall).

As usual with NLA publications, there are pages of information at the back, these ones outlining the history of refugees in Australia and in particular, those who came from Vietnam in the 70s, the grandmothers and grandfathers of so many of our students. Perfect for Harmony Day celebrations or any focus on the multicultural nature of this country.



Grandma’s Treasured Shoes from STYNA on Vimeo.

Me and My Fear

Me and My Fear

Me and My Fear










Me and My Fear

Francesca Sanna

Flying Eye, 2018

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


In the beginning her constant companion Fear is small, just big enough to keep her from doing things that would be harmful or dangerous.  But when she moves to a new country where she doesn’t know the language, the neighbourhood, the school or those she meets there, Fear grows and grows until it all but cripples her.  She feels more and more lonely and isolated each day, her self-confidence disappears and she hides herself away, full of self-doubt and beginning to loathe this new place as she begins to believe that she is too different to be understood, accepted and liked .  But a little boy is watching… can he lead her back by helping to shrink Fear?  And what does she discover about all the children in her class, indeed, everywhere?

This could be the story of any one of the children in our care, even those who have not had to emigrate to a new country and a whole new way of life.  While this companion to The Journey shows that the plight of refugees is not necessarily resolved as soon as they reach a new country, anxiety about the unknown, even the known, plagues many of our students, some to the point that they cannot get themselves to school, and so this book which demonstrates the power of how reaching out, being friendly, having empathy and making connections (even if that is your own biggest fear) can lead a troubled child back to a more normal world, where Fear is natural but it is a normal size.

The soft, retro colour palette reinforces the gentle tone of the book, and even though Fear grows and grows, it is not a black, dark, formidable, force but more a white, soft, marshmallow-like character that is not physically threatening . It maintains its shape even as it grows suggesting that its core remains the same, rather than becoming an overwhelming fear of everything.

Recommended in many lists as one that can help children not only begin to understand and overcome their own fears, but also one which can help others make the first step of reaching out and embracing those who seem isolated, this story is one that has many roles to play within the curriculum.















Zana Fraillon

Grahame Baker-Smith

Hachette, 2018

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


Idris lived in a small world where fences grew from the ground, shadows ruled and there were no trees offering shade, no rivers offered cool water to drink and there were no seas to swim in. His was a world full of people, but everyone in it was alone. 

Then one evening a Wisp came in on the evening breeze, unnoticed by all except Idris who gentlied it from the ground and softlied away the dust.  Clean and free, it began to wriggle and flitted away, finally settling at the feet of an old man, whose eyes had blurred long ago, but who put the Wisp to his ear and music memories of long ago poured forth.  Then, when it came again, it went to a woman who whispered the magic word, “Once” and a forest blossomed and a thunder of colours rained down. Whispers start as the memories are released and shared and gradually the loneliness is not so sharp any more.

Time and again the Wisp brings memories to those who have not forgotten but who have no one to share them with, so what happens when the Wisp settles with Idris, whose only memories are those of the desolate, lonely place he lives in?

Set against the darkest palette that reflects the world of Idris but which lightens when memories are evoked, this is a story of hope and promise – something that no amount of hardship and desolation seems to dampen within the human spirit. No matter where the refugee camp is there is always hope that there will be freedom and a life without fences, restrictions and oppression. With its poetic, eloquent words, this is another picture book that brings to life and light the plight of refugees around the world, adding to a growing collection that makes the more fortunate stop and think. 

For most children in our care, the world of refugees is not part of their every day experience but as some people show compassion and open their hearts and their doors to the families, it is creeping ever closer as the children become part of our classes, and everyone’s life is enriched.  Other reviewers have suggested that this book is for those 5 or 6 years and up but as I watch colleagues share stories like The Wonky Donkey and The Book with No Pictures  I wonder if those of such a young age are ready for one such as this. What questions will it raise and will we be able to answer them adequately, let alone reassure them?  Certainly, if the concept of refugees is part of their known world, then in the hands of someone prepared to listen and explain, younger readers will manage it, but IMO it is one for older readers who have an understanding of the sorts of things that cause people to flee their countries; the fears of those who think such people need to be imprisoned rather than welcomed; and the concepts of hope and freedom. Despite its warm fuzzy ending, like A Different Boy, the underlying constructs are dark and it is one that needs to be read before it is shared, particularly if there are children who have been in camps like Idris in the audience. Sensitivity is essential.

The Day War Came

The Day War Came

The Day War Came








The Day War Came

Nicola Davies

Rebecca Cobb

Walker, 2018

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


It started as an ordinary day- there were flowers on the window sill, her father sang to her baby brother, her mother made her breakfast, kissed her nose and walked with her to school,  School was ordinary too – she learned about volcanoes, how tadpoles turned to frogs and she drew a picture of a bird.

But then, just after lunch war came.  The devastation and desperation was complete.  The only salvation was to run – through fields, roads,and mountains in the cold and the mud and the rain; riding on trucks, buses, even a leaky boat and eventually up a beach where shoes lay empty in the sand. 

But war had come to this nation too – not the bombs-and-bullets type of war but one where hearts and minds are closed to those seeking refuge – until there is one act of kindness that changes both thinking and lives…

It is tragic enough that here in Australia some think it is OK to  put desperate children in detention, children who have suffered more than the decision-makers can ever imagine; but to know that Australia is not alone in this as evident by the recent policies of the US administration and that this poem was inspired by UK government refusing sanctuary to 3000 unaccompanied child refugees in 2016 is heart-breaking and head-shaking.  How has humanity become so selfish it can’t give succour to a child?

Told through the eyes of the child it not only puts a face to all the children displaced by adult motives but also makes the stories and plight of these children accessible to young readers – readers who might be like the little boy in the story and start a groundswell of change.  It is a book that cannot be shared in isolation – it needs a conversation that focuses on the girl’s emotions and feelings; her resilience and determination; and the big question “what if this were you?” (and some of our students may well be able to tell us because it has been them.) 

In a world that seems to be driven by economics rather than empathy this is a book that might start to change things, if now now then perhaps for the future.  Perhaps it is time for another make-love-not-war generation, despite the current protagonists being the products of the previous one. 

Waves – for those who come across the sea

Waves - for those who come across the sea

Waves – for those who come across the sea









Waves – for those who come across the sea

Donna Rawlins

Heather Potter  & Mark Jackson

Black Dog, 2018

40pp., hbk., RRP $A27.99


“If you are not an Indigenous Australian, your family have, at some stage, come to Australia from across the waves.”

“Every journey is perilous, every situation heartbreaking. Every refugee is a person forced by famine or war or fear to leave their
home, their families, their friends and all they know. Children have travelled on the waves of migration to the shores of Australia for
tens of thousands of years. This book tells some of their stories.” 

In this poignant narrative non fiction that begins with endpapers forming a timeline of people and their vessels from 50 000 years ago to the present, we meet the fictional children who are representative of all those who have come before as they tell their stories of their situation and circumstances and their anticipation for a new life in a new land. War, famine and fear have forced each of them to leave all that is familiar and escape across the treacherous seas to safety and security with the waves of migration almost as regular as  those that hit our shores interminably.  

Somewhat reminiscent of the iconic My Place by Nadia Wheatley, each double-page spread presents a new child’s story, a snippet of the life that set them on the waves and the life they hope to have, softly and superbly illustrated to give life to the words. 

From Anak who arrives by raft from Indonesia to settle in northern coastal Australia 55 000 years ago to  the refugees of the the present day, it demonstrates how this nation has been shaped by those who have sought solace, safety and security here.  But as well as bringing to life this country’s chronological migration history, it is also an opportunity to spark students’ interest in their own stories and to investigate the circumstances that brought their families across the waves.  Naturally this would have to be done with some sensitivity as not all would be stories that parents would want to be shared especially if there were difficult or traumatic circumstances but it could fill parts of the identity jigsaw as well as stimulate greater understanding and empathy for others.

Teachers’ notes focusing on the History and English strands of the Australian Curriculum for Years 3-6+ are available. 

If we are to put human faces to our history so that its study has relevance, meaning and connection for our young students, this is a must-have to be in every collection and to be promoted. It is indeed part of Australia: Story Country.