Freaks on the Loose by Leigh Hobbs

Miss Corker was a brand-new teacher and she was about to meet 4F, her brand-new class.
The headmaster introduced the children one by one.

‘Freaks on the Loose’ is two books in one, combining 4F for Freaks’ and ‘Freaks Ahoy’. In the first instalment, 4F have seen off another teacher and they see no reason that Miss Corker won’t soon follow. They have a reputation for awfulness and it’s well earned. Miss Corker consults The Teacher’s Handbook and makes it to the end of the first day. Just. Next day, though, there’s another new teacher, Miss Schnorkel. And Miss Schnorkel appears to have the measure of this legendary class. In the second story, Miss Schnorkel takes the class on an excursion aboard a boat. They visit a ship of retired teachers and of course mayhem ensues. Text is minimal and most of each page is filled with black and white images of the dreadful students and their appalling behaviour.

It’s difficult to decide whether this is a warning to aspiring teachers, or a manual for students. Either way, it’s full of giggles and guffaws as teacher and students get to know one another. Leigh Hobb’s iconic illustrations and monstrous characters are perfectly pitched at newly independent readers. Recommended for teachers and students alike.

Freaks on the Loose, Leigh Hobbs, Allen&Unwin 2018 ISBN: 9781780294311
review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller
www.clairesaxby.com

The Endsister by Penni Russon

In the locked attic of the house on Mortlake Road in south-west London, near a bend in the River Thames, something stirs.
It shudders, a cobwebbed thing, tattered and dusty, so long forgotten, so long forgetting.
It is hardly anything, but it is almost something, disturbing the shadows, shrinking from the approaching light.

An Australian family inherit a grand old house in London and move from their rented farmhouse to live at Outhwaite House. There Else, Clancy, the twins and Sibbi, along with their parents adjust to a new life. Some settle in more easily than others to this old house – some begin to thrive and others succumb to the secrets trapped within the walls. Told from multiple viewpoints, this is a story of endings and beginnings, and of all things in between.

It takes skill to write a cohesive story from multiple (different-aged) viewpoints without sacrificing the building tension and keeping the reader connected. Penni Russon nails it. Each dweller in Outhwaite House is given a voice and their own story, and together they weave a wonderful, mysterious story that will keep the reader page-turning to the very last. Highly recommended for mid- to upper-primary readers.

The Endsister, Penni Russon Allen & Unwin 2018 ISBN: 9781741750652
review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller
www.clairesaxby.com

The Yellow House, by Emily O’Grady

‘They’re weird,’ Wally said.
‘They’re family,’ Mum said. ‘Your aunt and your cousin.’
‘If they’re family, then why’ve we never met them?’ Wally asked. ‘Why’ve we never even heard of them?’

Ten year old Cub is excited when her aunt and cousin move into the long empty house next door to theirs. Cub’s family – her parents, older brother Cassie, and twin brother Wally – are outcasts, ostracized by the town for the terrible crimes committed by her grandfather before Cub was born. Cub has limited understanding of why they are hated, but her only friend in the world is Wally, so she has high hopes that Tilly, her cousin, will be her new best friend.

But the presence of Tilly and her mother don’t create the kind of change Cub is hoping for. Rather, the tensions that have been bubbling beneath the surface seem to rise up, and when Cassie brings home a new friend, Ian, the tension rises.

The Yellow House, winner of this year’s Vogel Literary Award, is gut-wrenching story of family secrets, betrayal and inter-generational disadvantage. Seeing events through the eyes of Cub gives the story an intriguing perspective – Cub is naive and innocent, in many ways, and the readers must navigate and interpret events only through Cub’s understanding.

Unsettling to read, this is a well-woven haunting tale.

The Yellow House, by Emily O’Grady
Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN 9781760632854

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventure of Bronte Mettlestone, by Jaclyn Moriarty

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates.
This did not bother me as much as you might think – I hardly knew my parents. They were a whirling pair of dancers in a photograph my aunt kept on her mantelpiece. There was a jazz band in the corner of that photo, and I’d always been more taken by the man playing the trumpet than my mother’s gauzy scarf or my father’s goofy grin.

When news comes that her parents have been killed by pirates, Bronte Mettlestone isn’t particularly moved. She doesn’t remember her parents, who abandoned her in her the lobby of her Aunt’s apartment building when she was just a baby. But when she is summonsed to the reading of her parents’ will, Bronte’s life changes dramatically. Her parents have left special gifts for each of her other ten aunts – and instructions for Bronte to deliver them. She must do this alone, following the very detailed instructions her parents have left, or something terrible will happen.

Armed only with her parents’ instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own wits, Bronte is soon travelling to visit her various aunts who are scattered far and wide and include one who is a veterinarian, another who is monarch of a small kingdom and two others who captain their own cruise ship. As she delivers gifts and follows instructions, Bronte finds herself having unexpected adventures, including rescuing a baby from drowning, inadvertently getting caught in an avalanche, and facing pirates and dragons. Before she reaches her final destination, Bronte begins to suspect that there is more to this quest than a simple delivery of gifts.

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventure of Bronte Mettlestone is a whimsical, adventure-filled novel which young readers will be swept away by. Bronte’s adventure is filled with twists and turns, and characters both odd and captivating. The illustrations (the work of Kelly Canby) scattered throughout the book and the sumptuous gold-embellished hard cover complete the experience, making the book a delight to own.

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventure of Bronte Mettlestone, by Jaclyn Moriarty, illustrations by Kelly Canby
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760297176

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch, by Nicki Greenberg

This time there’ll be no hiding at the back of the classroom, hoping no one notices me. No pretending to have a stomach ache or locking myself in the toilets to cry. In just nine hours I’ll be standing in front of a while class of the little monsters, trying not to make some kind of terrible mistake. Although I think I’ve already made one, taking this job in the first place.

Every teacher is nervous when they start their first job. But Zelda Stitch has an extra thing to worry about: how to keep the fact that she’s a witch secret from her students. especially when she isn’t even good at being a witch. When term starts she soon realises that it isn’t going to be easy. When the children play tricks on her, she struggles to keep her magic hidden. And it seems she isn’t the only witch in the room. One of her students seems to developing witch skills. And someone in the school has put a hex on the principal.

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch is a humorous diary-format novel, complemented by equally humorous illustrations by the author. Zelda is bumbling but likeable, and supported by an interesting cast including her seemingly objectionable cat, Barnaby.

An easy read, with plenty to keep readers turning pages.

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch, by Nicki Greenberg
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760294908

Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas

It is midnight. The young prince has been hunting in the forest with a party of friends. Now he is alone and deep in thought. It is the eve of the grand ball that the Queen is holding in his honour. He must choose a bride from all the princesses in the land. His heart is heavy.

The story of Swan Lake is known and loved. In this picture book version, the story is set out first in text, as it is in the ballet. Each of the three acts is summarised on a single page, then shown in mostly monotone illustrations in the following pages. In the first act, a prince meets the Swan Queen, who has been cursed by a Sorcerer. In Act 2, the ball proceeds and the Prince is bewitched by the Sorcerer’s daughter. In Act 3, he realises he has been tricked and pursues the Swan Queen.

Swan Lake’ is simply glorious, from the swan embrace on the front cover, through the drama and tragedy, all the way to the final dramatic image. Setting it in the three acts allows those familiar with the story to ready themselves for the next instalment, and for those new to the story to absorb the words before tipping headlong into the romance of the images. It is no surprise that the story spills across 48 pages rather than the more familiar 32 pages. Colour is used sparingly and with great insight and skill. Notes at the end give some hints of techniques used to create images. Highly recommended for lovers of dance and this story; for artists and creators; and for readers of all ages.

Swan Lake, Anne Spudvilas
Allen & Unwin 2017
ISBN: 9781743318454

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller
www.clairesaxby.com

Sparrow, by Scot Gardner

One two three breath one two three four.
After the dusk burned out and the stars began winking in his salt-stung eyes it became impossible to judge the distance to shore. The stars finished some way above the waterline, but was theat the Kimberley coast he could see, or clouds hanging low over an endless ocean?
One two breath one two breath.

Travelling by boat at the end of a survival trip off the Kimberley coast, Sparrow sees that the boats i about to sink and decides to swim for safety and for freedom. His life in juvie has been tough, and h’es prepared to risk everything for freedom. But there are sharks and crocodiles in the water, and its getting dark. the shore, too, is filled with dangers. Yet none of these dangers are perhaps as dark as the memories that crowd his mind.

Sparrow is a compelling story of survival both in the remote Kimberley wilderness, and on the streets of Darwin. Sparrow, selective mute after a childhood of trauma, relives the events which have lead to him being in juvenile detention as he tackles the new challenges for day to day survival which have arisen as a result of his decision to flee the boat.

A moving, unforgettable story.

Sparrow, by Scot Gardner
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760294472

Gap year in Ghost Town, by Michael Pryor

Let’s get this straight – ghosts are everywhere. And they’re dangerous. This is why my family has hunted them for thousands of years.

Anton is a reluctant ghost hunter. He and his father are a two-man team, carrying out their family legacy. But his dad doesn’t have the sight, which means it’s Anton who has to do theg host hunting. He’d rather be at university, but his father has talked him in to giving it a try during his gap year. And it doesn’t seem to be going too badly until Anton meets a Rogue – a freakish, almost-solid kind of ghost that can do a lot of harm. A lot. Coupled with the appearance in his life of Rani, a fellow ghost hunter, recently arrived from England, and Anton suddenly as a lot on his hands.

Gap Year in Ghost Town is a high-action spec-fic novel set in contemporary Melbourne. This setting is a departure for author Michael Pryor, whose previous work has been set in the past or in steam-punk versions of it, or fictional places. The novelty of a ghost story set in the contemporary world is appealing, and Melbourne, for those who know it, is an apt choice, with the ghosts inhabiting both well known landmarks and lesser known buildings.

Anton is a likable, believable narrator, who is self-deprecating but also self-aware, knowing his strengths and sharing his fears. The ghosts and the plot that surrounds them are intirguing, and readers will left hoping that there are further adventures to come.

Gap Year in Ghost Town, by Michael Pryor
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760292768

My Lovely Frankie, by Judith Clarke

Frankie believed in Heaven quite literally, as if it was another lovely world out past the stars. And when he spoke the word “love”, it seemed to spring free and fly into the air like a beautiful balloon you wanted to run after. But I couldn’t tell my parents about Frankie. I couldn’t tell them how he was becoming the best thing in my world. I couldn’t tell anyone, I  hardly admitted it myself.

When teenage Tom decides to enter the seminary his intentions are clear: he wants something more than ordinary happiness, and feels, in spite of his parents’ uncertainty, that he is being called to become a priest. At St Finbar’s life is more difficult than Tom imagined, filled with rules and restrictions. Yet it is here that he meets Frankie, and learns that happiness and love are inextricably linkd.

My Lovely Frankie  is a tale of seminary life, love and self-discovery set in 1950s Australia. From the moment he meets Frankie, Tom feels a connection he struggles to comprehend, particularly in light of his sheltered existence. What is it he feels for Frankie?

Told in the first person voice of a modern day, much older, Tom as he looks back on the events of his teen years, the story gradually unfolds, with the narrative style giving glimpses of the life he has lived in the intervening years, as well as keeping the reader guessing as to the events of the year in question.

Beautifully written, this is a story which will haunt long after the last page.

My Lovely Frankie, by Judith Clarke
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760296339

How to Bee, by Bren MacDibble

Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches. Sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened, and foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.”

With real bees extinct, Peony wants nothing more than to be one of the human bees – children who climb the trees in the orchard and pollinate the flowers by hand, so that the rich people in the city can eat fruit. It’s not an easy life, scratching out a living on the farm, with her sister and grandfather, but at least the foreman makes sure they have food, and Gramps makes sure they have love.  But Peony’s ma wants her to come and live in the city, and won’t take no for an answer.

How to Bee is a moving novel set in a dystopian near-future of haves and have-nots impacted by the extinction of bees and other changes. Peony is feisty, an intriguing blend of innocence and worldliness. Good-hearted, she is torn by loyalty to her mother and the new friend she makes in the city, and her love of the rest of her family and of life in the country.

The premise is both intriguing and important – with the world’s bees declining in numbers – and readers will cheer for Peony as she makes her way through some really difficult times, helping others along the way.

How to Bee, by Bren MacDibble
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760294335