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.