Kate the Great

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In the last month or so, Kate DiCamillo’s RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE has circulated through four readers spanning three generations in our family. My thirteen-year-old first pressed it into my hand with wide eyes. “Momma, you’ll love this.” She was right. I devoured it – reading deep into the night; ignoring my inner nag tut-tutting about sleep. My Mother has furtively chipped away each visit – stealing it up from my bedside. And Miss Ten was entranced by Jenna Lamia’s reading of the story during our frequent and long drives West.

No dystopia, wizardry or superheroes here. Ramie Clarke is a suburban girl with a problem and a plan.  There are baton lessons, white boots and shitty cars. Strangers, crazies, lost pets.  Beneath lies a darker architecture – abandonment, poverty and violence. But with restraint and careful cadence DiCamillo ultimately tells a simple and joyful story about friendship.  She perfectly inhabits Raymie and a child’s view of a complex world. This story is clearly personal. Brilliant.

 

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The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

 

 

The Blitz, England. Black-outs and bombings. Death, loss, illness, fear. It’s a broad and powerful canvas.

Sick and grieving young Emmaline finds purpose and magic when she discovers that winged horses live in the mirrors of a grand English manor-turned-children’s hospital.

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Megan Shepherd’s award-winning middle fiction book “The Secret Horses of Briar Hill” (Walker Books 2016) isn’t really about horses but your young reader won’t care.

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Levi Pinfold’s illustrations bring this world to life with incredible, almost photo-realistic sketches created from his imagination.  Intense and evocative.

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If your reader loved The Secret Garden and The Chronicles of Narnia – they’ll enjoy this.

 

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“See You When I See You” by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson – Reviewed by Hana (9)

 

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I understood.  Really.  Who could resist that cover?  My review copy of “See You When I See You” by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Ericsson. Gone.

My sleuthing didn’t take long.  Cue defiant nine-year-old.

“I just need it back for a while,” I say.  “You can have it after that.”

“Why do you need it?” comes her careful, tinged-with-defiance reply.

“Because I’m going to read it and tell people about it on my blog.”

I’ll tell them about it.”

“O-kay… what would you say?”

“That I love it.  And Dani is me and Ella is Tessie.  Because I’ve got white hair and Tessie’s got black hair and we are best friends and the adults can’t stop us from being best friends even though she lives far, far away.  But Dad’s not Italian like Dani’s Dad and he doesn’t say “amore” when he kisses me goodnight.  And you’re not dead like Dani’s Mum.”

Her eyes flick up at me, contemplating my alive-ness.

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“In the books Dani gets sad because Ella is so far away and there are mean boys in her class and she doesn’t like her Dad’s new girlfriend because she’s still sad about her Mum.”

Her shoulders rise and sag with a giant exhalation.

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“This time they go to the zoo and she gets lost and Ella was there with her school too and they went on an adventure and they buried their friendship necklaces in a hole in the ground.  Then they got in trouble and Ella’s teacher was mean and carried her off like a sack of something.”

She pauses, aggrieved.

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“And Dani has guinea pigs called Snow and Flake and they live in her room!  Like my fish Lemon and Honey but they’re not guinea pigs.  Snow and Flake are really super-clever guinea pigs.  You can tell because their eyes glitter.”

She goggles her eyes rodent-style and laughs.

 

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“Dani is funny Mum.  And she knows about the silver lining.  You know – in the clouds?”

A grand, skywards arc of hand, a breathy sigh… then she (and the book) are gone.

“See You When I See You” is a new story in the acclaimed chapter book series written by Rose Lagercrantz and illustrated by Eva Ericsson, due out in July.   A stand-alone read, “See You When I See You” follows “My Happy Life”, “My Heart is Laughing”, “When I am Happiest” and “Life According to Dani.” 

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Lagercrantz and Ericsson (Sweden) are long-time friends and collaborators and it shows in this beautiful dance of words and pictures.  The stories are rooted firmly in the domestic world – main character Dani navigates the subterranean complexities of home and family life, school and friendship.  The adults in Dani’s life are fallible and she grapples authentically with a good measure of grief and disappointment. 

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Neither trite nor heavy-handed, the serious business of growing up is balanced by a sense of wonder and flourishes of twinkling humour.  This series will most likely appeal to 5-7 year-olds as a read-together or an independent read for 7-9.  We’ve eagerly anticipated and loved every book. Classics.

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With thanks to Gecko Press for the lost and found review copy.

Wonderment and Warning

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Jeannie Baker’s new picture book Circle (Walker Books 2016) has been balanced on the top of the review pile for a few weeks now. It’s been hard to ignore in the gloom of an Auckland winter – a large and luscious hardback, it’s cover sings of tropical coastlands far, far away. But that’s the thing with Baker’s work; always the high blue sky, lush greens, red earth. A palette drawn from the natural world.

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For the last 30 years, Jeannie Baker has been telling stories of nature, community and belonging. Her 14 illustrated children’s books are implicit with cautionary messages about population pressure, ecological vulnerability and cultural tolerance. Baker’s award-winning work includes “Window”, Home, “Mirror”, “Millicent” and “Where the Forest Meets the Sea.”

Baker uses an eclectic mix of materials and found objects to create richly detailed collage. Her miniature, shallow relief panoramas are made from tiny scraps of material; earth, wool, down, grass, leaves, feathers and fabric. Printed as photo-collage, they are enchanting.

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Baker’s books are generally wordless, the pictures a gentle visual narrative. Our favourite is Window (Walker Books 1991), which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal. It documents the development in a boy’s neighbourhood from rural idyll to conurbation. It’s a poignant story – the fall of nature and the passing of childhood are a potent mix.

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The detail is delightful. Baker plays with childhood talismans to tell the story of a boy growing up. Through the window we watch as the birds and bush surrender to urban sprawl and the land is inexorably tamed. In front of our eyes, the little boy outgrows superheroes and bunny-rabbits.

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Then there’s a girl. And he is gone.

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The story ends with the adult boy holding his own baby at a new window, the spectre of the city now distanced – for the time being.

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Mirror is another wordless book published to great acclaim in 2010 (Australian Picture Book of the Year). It contains two stories designed to be read separately but at the same time.

Two boys, one in Morocco and one in urban Australia, live very similar lives in two different cultures.  Opposing pages present two different pictures to compare and show how their lives, hopes and dreams are not altogether different.

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In her new book Circle, Baker uses text alongside collage to tell the story of the bar-tailed Godwits, endangered migratory shorebirds that annually follow ancient invisible pathways from New Zealand and Australia across South East Asia to their breeding grounds in Alaska.

Baker spent ten years researching the godwits, joining a group of bird scientists in the remote Alaskan Tundra and the wetlands of the Yellow Sea.

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Circle celebrates the wonder of the epic journey these tiny birds take, but more it’s a gentle assertion of the interconnectedness of our world and the collective challenge we face to preserve and protect nature in the face of global population pressure.

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The beautiful aerial seascapes and landscapes created for CIRCLE are currently on a two-year national tour of Australia.

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Baker’s next book project is Playing with Collage, an inspirational guide for children and adults.

Hello World!

  2544Time has passed in the Mo household since the arrival of the little blue monster who, like a rumbustious toddler, crunched, munched and chewed his way into the orderly lives of Mr and Mrs Mo in “Mrs Mo’s Monster” (2014).  Author/illustrator Paul Beavis continues his droll depiction of the little monster in “Hello World” (Gecko Press, September 2015).

Little Monster is bored.  Mr and Mrs Mo are busy with no time to play – in classic parent fashion, Mrs Mo tells him “we’ll do something fun tomorrow.”  That doesn’t cut it with the monster for whom, like most human children, it’s all about the now.    2546
Surveying the (now tidy) miscellany of attic junk he has the brilliant idea to pack a bag and head “off to see the world.”  Mrs Mo’s reaction is perfectly understated.  “How exciting,” she says.  “Can I make you a sandwich?”

He sets off with a spinning globe under his arm and knapsack heaving with attic-tat; trumpets and trophies, rackets and bats.  Heading for the hills, he’s having a brilliant time, oblivious to both the trail he leaves as things fall out of his bag and the furtive Mrs Mo who is follows at a safe distance, gathering it up behind him.
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But the landscape looms and the shadows lengthen and the little monster begins to tire.

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Forlorn, he tosses the globe aside and regards his now empty rucksack. Beavis’s use of visual foreshadowing is brilliant here.  It’s the “all is lost moment” for the monster but little readers will delight in spotting the long shadow of Mrs Mo (and the collection of junk) just behind a nearby rock.

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Equally delightful is the monster’s facial expression as he clutches her with relief.  Ever-cool, Mrs Mo says she thought he might be “missing a few things” and offers him a sandwich.  The monster gratefully accepts “just the one.”  Restored, he leaps up from amidst an impressive pile of crusts and sweeps Mrs Mo forward on the adventure.  Together they climb, the monster reassuring Mrs Mo all the way to the top where they are rewarded with a glorious vista of fiery sunset and patchwork fields.

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There’s an amusing reversal here as Mrs Mo appears unsteady and moots heading home. Little monster’s torch beam cuts impossibly through the darkening sky as he bravely declares “I can show you the way!”.  Parents will love the monster’s childish provocation at the end and Mrs Mo’s benign response (and Mrs Mo, cuppa in hand, literally on top of the world).

Beavis has a strongly narrative and striking illustrative style. The perspective shifts are brilliant – from the tiny, trailing Mrs Mo who ultimately (and heroically) fills a page, to the confines of the rock landscape that opens to an climatic epic vista of land and sky.  Judicious use of colour heightens the sense of intensifying menace with benign blue skies and green fields at the beginning of the adventure giving way to the the fiery reds and ochres in the canyon.

This charming fable is warm and exuberant.  Young readers will love looking for the steadfast Mrs Mo on every page almost as much as they will identify with the kaleidoscopic emotion and energy that is Mrs Mo’s Monster, growing up.

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With thanks to Gecko Press for providing a review copy.

Cat-ness – “Jenny and the Cat Club” by Esther Averill – New York Review Books Children’s Collection

jenny and the cat club 2In the last few years New York Review Books, with a stroke of brilliance,  have been unearthing and reissuing classics for children (and their big people).

These range from picture books for preschoolers to early chapter books and novels for older children.  Beauties like The Backward Day by Ruth Krauss, Palmer Brown’s Hickory, The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay.  Check out the NYRB pages – they group these treasures by reading age.

Objects to admire, beautiful to hold – these hard-cover editions have red cloth spines and many include original endpapers, line art, and full-colour illustrations.  The covers in the collection feature a unified series design and materials are carefully selected to reflect the period of original publication.

One of our favourites is Esther Averill’s Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favourite Stories about Jenny Linksy.

First published in the 1940s and 50s, these simple stories are about an orphaned black cat who lives happily with her human, Captain Tinker, in New York’s Greenwich Village.

photo 4Jenny is sensitive and shy yet has social designs – she longs to be part of the cool Cat Club.   The members of the Cat Club meet regularly to party in Captain Tinker’s garden.  All the cats in the club have distinct personalities: – the elegant Persian Butterfly (who plays the nose flute), the lively twins Romulus and Remus, sweethearts Arabella and Antonio, clever Solomon who can read and generally sits atop a pile of books, naughty Macaroni, club-fighters Sinbad and The Duke. The club is presided over by a well-fed feline by the name of, unsurprisingly, Mr President.  Every cat knows its place in the club and the only way to get membership is to prove a special cat-talent.  It’s a club that demands excellence of it’s members.  Daunting?  Meow.

photo 2“They are too clever.  All of them can do things.  What can I do?  Nothing.” Jenny

As she gains acceptance to the Cat Club and throughout her later adventures with them,  Jenny struggles with emotions common to all children.  Dealing with bullies, feelings of being an outsider, jealousy, insecurity, loneliness and embarrassment.

” Before long Alice Featherlegs caught sight of the three new arrivals.  She ran over to them, and her soft fur made a rustling sound as she drew near. How elegant and full of grace she seemed!  Jenny could not take her eyes away from her.   But Alice did not even glance at Jenny.  Alice looked only at Florio and Pickles.  She acted just as if she never spoke to little cats.  Alice’s behaviour made Jenny feel extremely small and plain.”

photo 1The stories are a helpful and reassuring exploration of feelings that a 5-8 year old might feel if they were new to school or moved to a new neighbourhood.  Or within any given school day.  And our gallant protagonist Jenny overcomes these feelings with support (yay Cap’n Tinker), persistence and a very quiet courage.

“Jenny’s neck felt cold and bare without her red wool scarf tied snugly around it. And all those pairs of cat eyes staring at her through the moonlight frightened her. But she knew she had to speak.  She must make the Cat Club understand how important was the scarf she had lost.”

Some might find the slight formality and occasional didactic tendencies a bit cringey.  But Averill writes with almost a nonchalance that anchors the whimsy of the cat-club world.  And any kid who has a cat or loves cats will be entranced by the simple, sketched drawings that perfectly capture, well, the cat-ness of these characters.

photo 3Despite their weakness for accessorising (Jenny is lost without her scarf, Pickles wears a fireman’s helmet and Florio borrows an Indian feathered head-dress from a doorman) these cats are not just humans with fur.  Jenny pokes her paw in a crack in the sidewalk “as if she hoped to find a penny.”  Her new brother Edward makes his “office” in a corner of the closet behind Captain Tinker’s rubber boots.  When Jenny is afraid she spends the day sleeping in a soapbox in the cellar.  In another incident she hides under the sofa after scratching Captain Tinker.  This affectionate attention to cat quirks are everywhere – the characters stretch their necks to peek, curl up, flee in terror, lick their fur and groom their whiskers.

Seventy years young, these charming, graceful stories are perennially modern, as all great books should be.  Jenny and The Cat Club should appeal to both boys and girls as a read-aloud 4-8 years and for independent readers 7+.

The entire collection of Jenny Linksy books available from the NY collection includes: –

1. Jenny and the Cat Club

2. Captains of the City Streets

3. The Hotel Cat

4. Jenny’s Moonlight Adventure

5. Jenny’s Birthday Book

6. Jenny Goes to Sea

7. The School for Cats

and the all-important prequel….

8. The Fire Cat.

Emerging Readers – From Picture Books to Junior Fiction

It’s an interesting time when children begin to expand their reading beyond the realms of the picture book.

My big kid spent years straddling these two reading worlds – stretching her new-found reading muscles in chapter books and returning the glorious delights and comforts of best-loved picture books.

While I encourage my kids into the delights of longer form reading, I think there’s great value in keeping up with picture books. Beginning readers are delighted by the illustrations, the colour, the simplicity, rhyme and rhythm. They feel confident reading and, if it’s an old favourite, know the words without really even reading them. This is truly delightful and ultimately, all about the love of story. My ten year old still enjoys curling up and listening while I read to her younger sibling. She’ll still select picture books from the library and I often find her engrossed in old favourites and more complex picture books I’ve left on her shelves.

Peer pressure is a factor that drives children to seek out “word books” as my seven- year-old describes them. I overheard her and a friend talking just a week or so ago.

T “Are you reading chapter books? Proper ones?

H “Yeah. I like Billie B Brown.”

 T “No that’s not a real chapter book. There’s no pictures in real chapter books, only those little black ones that aren’t coloured in. Just lots of little words. Billie B has big words in it and pictures. It’s not a real chapter book.”

 For my seven year old (an “emerging” reader), I try to encourage a reading range that spans picture books, school readers and early-middle fiction. Not to mention non-fiction titles with luscious layouts and glorious photos. Literacy experts and educators will always tell you that at this pivotal age, it’s about getting kids hooked on reading. So accessible, chiselled narratives with great illustrations at limited lengths are a pretty good bet. You want them to fall in love with reading, so woo them with the tried and trusted junior fiction greats but don’t overlook or underestimate books targeted specifically for this transitional level.

Being a book-obsessed control-freak, I plant what I consider great books at eye height on my 7-year-old’s shelves (“what about this one?”) and mostly she obliges by loving them. But when we hit the library it’s a free-for-all – she picks out obscure or underwhelming picture books based on the attractiveness of the cover illustration or character drawing. Shiny and glittery covers attract her (Rainbow Magic – aaaargh) and sometimes she’ll select something above her reading ability because she’s seen older kids read it. I just roll with it. My mantra? Sure. Try it.

Lately, we’ve discovered some great “inbetweeners” in the Aussie Bites, Nibbles and Chomps series – I’ve avoided these in the past cause they look trashy. But I’m just a grown-up book snob and have to get over myself. These colourful, lightweight, illustrated early chapter books are actually very good. They’re easy to read without being “dumbed down” and make beginning readers just want to keep reading. Identifiable by their bright and busy covers with the “nibble” out of the top, these books are the perfect length for this age group and written by some acclaimed writers like as Urusla Dubosarsky and Tim Winton. She loves them. The deal with our night-time reading ritual is this – she reads to me for a bit then I take a turn, reading aloud from the same title or from something else we have on the go. Tired by this hour, she usually can’t wait for me to take over. But the Aussie Nibbles have hit the mark and she relentlessly reads on. Joy.

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We’ve also enjoyed (bow, scrape) Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series (beautiful, bright and funny) and the Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows. Other great books for emerging readers the multitude of titles in the I CAN READ series “widely recognised as the premier line of beginning readers.” (Harper Collins). This series has a rating of 1-4 and ranges from “Sharing My First Reading” then “Beginning Reading”, “Reading with Help”, “Reading Alone” through to “Advanced Reading”. These are classics by award winning authors and illustrators. We love “Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak and “Frog and Toad” by Arnold Lobel.  The marvellous Fancy Nancy and Amelia Bedelia titles are other favourites.  Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine series was a hit as was (I hate to say it because it’s not a “real chapter book”) Billie B Brown. If this is all sounding a little girl orientated – check out the screeds of recommendations on my Junior Fiction – Enticing Boys and Amusing Girls Page.)

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Of course, some kids take to reading more readily than others. But what if you’ve got a reluctant reader? My ten year old was definitely in this category. I’d be lying if I said this hadn’t aggravated me at times. (After all, I’ve read to that kid every day since birth! She has to love books! How could she not? All her friends are reading. Why won’t she? Is something wrong?) I managed (just) to curb my tendency to over-think and over-parent my first-born and just kept reading to her – long after all her friends were reading independently. We’d curl up together before her bedtime and I’d read a few chapters of something brilliant. It was delicious time. Now she’s a fully-fledged independent reader we still have this ritual – she reads in bed while I deal to the sibling factor, then I come in and I read to her from a book we’ve chosen together. Sometimes we take turns in reading it aloud. Either way, it’s still special time together and I’m aware that one day soon it’ll probably come to an end. Carpe Diem.

There are tons of great options, best lists and websites galore out there. The Guardian (UK) offer best children’s books lists at all ages. Here, most usefully is their best children’s books 5-7 years.  For boys? This guide from PBSparents lists beginning reader books appealing (mostly) to boys.  Great Schools list a best first book series here.  Scholastic list popular series for 6-7 year olds and have a useful page on reading development and advice about first chapter books. Goodreads have a list worth reading (among others) – “What Book Got You Hooked?

My advice is, if you have a reluctant reader, don’t panic. It’ll happen. Find books you think they’ll love, let them choose. Consider their interests and find fiction and non-fiction in the subject area. Leave books lying about. Consult un-missable book lists – check out my listmania page – JUNIOR FICTION – ENTICING BOYS AND AMUSING GIRLS for for suggested titles for this age-group. Don’t overlook comic series, graphic novels and audio books. Keep homework and compulsory reading sessions short and time them well (fed, fresh, free from distraction). And continue to enjoy the closeness that comes from sharing a book together. It will end all too soon.

Beginning

This blog is borne of my passion for children’s books.  I collect vicariously, buying myself children’s books in the guise of buying them for my children – I unashamedly declare that re-discovering children’s books is one of the best things about becoming a parent.  My children’s book-shelves are groaning with glorious finds both old and new – some are from my own childhood, there are classics and contemporaries, mistakes and delightful discoveries.

Our books come from all over;  the library, small independent booksellers like the fabulous Children’s Bookshop in Wellington, big commercial retailers, second-hand stores and on-line. I’m the one under the book-stall trestle table at the school fair, scrabbling in the dusty boxes.  I’ve made crazy Ebay purchases of titles withdrawn from a U.S. Mid-Western library for a buck and paid ten times that in air-freight.  I give judiciously and receive with joy.  I’m constantly asked to recommend titles and there’s nothing I enjoy more than having a good think about the age, reading ability and interests of the child and coming up with a potential hit.

I’m delighted that the challenge of finding books for my own little readers constantly changes – not only as they grow in maturity and reading ability, but also as their interests and personalities develop. To read with my children is a time for closeness and sharing, to see them curl up and read alone for the first (and second and third..) time is a gratifying rush.  And their choices aren’t always what I consider “good” books.  In the end – it’s about finding delight and solace in books.  I want my children to enjoy reading.  Anything.  Yes we all know that reading and writing go hand in hand and the many and varied positive impacts that reading has on children from an educational perspective.  But more than that, books are reliable companions throughout life’s ups and downs.  We all remember the great books of our childhoods.  Sometimes we carry a part of them with us for life.  Whether a comic, an e-book, a picture book, an audio book, a series – a book is a place to learn, a place to hide, a part of the ancient human tradition of storytelling; a drum, a shell, a bonfire on a hill-top.

I’ve been wondering how best to approach this blog.  I thought of categories by age groups, gender, reading challenges and setbacks, new books, old books.  But I think I like the feel of something more random – just where my head’s at, what’s piqued my interest or provoked thought.  So bear with this blog newbie and be rewarded with insightful reviews, musings, recommendations and conversation about all things kid-lit.  I can’t promise it won’t be a little New Zealand-centric.  I’m so proud of our writers and publishers who champion stories for children – particularly the fabulous Gecko Press who consistently treat us to “curiously good books from around the world.”

Gah – this is starting to sound like advertorial.  So enough blather and onto the books.

Best, Louise