Black Baron, by Robyn Opie

Turning around, Dad glared at me and held up his hand like a policeman stopping traffic. “I’m not sharing my house with a cockroach as if…as if…” He flung his hands in the air, turned around and stormed off.
Black Baron didn’t take up much room, I thought. Besides, no one was using the space under my bed. “He’s not hurting anyone,” I tried again.
“It isn’t natural,” Dad said. “People don’t keep cockroaches as pets.”

Jake’s cockroach, Black Baron, is on a winning streak. In Fact, he’s probably the best racing cockroach ever. But Jake knows that Black Baron wouldn’t be welcome in the house if Mum knew he was there. That’s why Black Baron is kept under the bed, which is a great place until Mum tidies Jake’s bedroom and not only discovers the cockroach but also inadvertently releases it. When Dad calls in the exterminator, Jake thinks he’ll never see Black Baron again.

Black Baron is one title in the new Lightning Strikes series from Walker Books, a series aimed at 9 to 14 year old readers, and likely to engage reluctant readers with its contemporary look and non-threatening length.

Black Baron is humorous, with chaos ensuing as Jake searches for his cockroach and tries to prevent it being exterminated, but also touches on serious issues such as family conflict and financial stress. The friendship Jake shares with his mates is also a very positive element of this story.

A great read for upper primary aged readers.

Black Baron, by Robyn Opie
Walker Books, 2008

The Great Shave, by Clare Scott

It’s the first day back at school and I’m so going to get it from everyone. That means teachers too. Why? Because of my still-green hair, that’s why.
The colour’s maybe gone down a shade or three, but it’s still green as green. The powers-that-be at school will be as understanding as the powers-to-be at home.
Zip!

Stix and his mates think it’s a great idea to temporarily dye their hair green when they go to watch their favourite band, the Screaming Greenie Meanies. But when Stix tries to wash the green out after the concert, he is in for a shock. The green will just not wash out. When school goes back, Stix knows he is in for a hard time, but when the Principal insists the green hair go, Stix discovers there is something worse than green hair – a green, hairless scalp.

The Great Shave is a humorous story for upper primary aged readers, part of the Lightning Strikes series from Walker Books. With action, laughs and an appealing length, it is accessible for reluctant readers, but high enough in interest for readers of all abilities.

As Stix discovers the highs and lows of having a green head, readers will be engaged and entertained.

The Great Shave, by Clare Scott
Walker Books, 2008

The Stone Crown, by Malcolm Walker

Emlyn’s phone rang. The screen displayed his sister’s number. Pocketing it, he moved on. His only thought now was running and evasion, but there was nowhere to go. Ahead, the bridge was a dark throat in the snow. He was being swallowed. Something terrible was about to happen.

When Emlyn’s mother moves him to a small Scottish village, Emlyn finds himself drawn to Sleeper’s Spinney, an ancient site connected to the time of Arthur. Beneath the ground twenty wooden horseman are entombed, hidden from the world. When Emlyn discovers the figures, he unleashes a chain of events which sees his life threatened. Together with his friend Max (Maxine) he is threatened by the keepers of site who will stop at nothing to get back the figure which Emlyn has in his possession.

This figure is no child’s toy or statue. The spirits of Arthur and his loyal guard have been trapped in the figures for centuries, imprisoned by the magic of the lady of the lake. As Emlyn and Max uncover the truth, they are also challenged with the decision of whether or not to free the men’s spirits.

This is a revision of the Arthurian legend in a unique setting, and with the multiple perspectives of two modern day teens and one of the trapped warriors. Both of the teens have problems of their own to deal with, and as the story unravels they must question the legend of Arthur as much as the reader will. This is no noble King putting his life on the line for his people – rather this Arthur is both the victim of a lost childhood manipulated by Merlin, and a power-mad adult unaware of the machinations of those around him.

The Stone Crown is a fantasy which will intrigue teen and adult readers.

The Stone Crown, by Malcolm Walker
Walker Books, 2008

Queasy Rider, by James Roy

Pushing our good bikes with one hand and half-wheeling, half-carrying the old junky bike between us with the other, we headed off to my place, which was only a couple of streets away. The whole way Thicky did nothing but talk about the wonderful new thing we’d found. We could do it up and sell it, we could use the bits as spares to make a tandem bike or a fancy trike or a pedal-powered helicopter, and on and on…

When Nobby and Thicky find an old, busted-up bike, Nobby thinks its just rubbish, but Thicky is sure it can be used for something useful. When Shirley sees it, she has an idea – an idea that could make money for the three of them. It’s a plan so crazy it just might work. But then again, it might not.

Queasy Rider is a fast-moving tale of a silly plan to make money using an old bike and a steep hill. Nobby and Thicky’s ingenuity and Shirley’s schemes soon have them setting up business daring people to ride the old bike down the hill without falling off. Any kid who has ever dreamt of making easy money will relate, and the short length of the text will allow even a reluctant reader to finish the story quickly.

Part of the new Lightning Strikes series from Walker Books, Queasy Rider is suited to upper primary aged readers of all abilities.

Queasy Rider, by James Roy
Walker Books, 2008

Going for Broke, by Meg McKinlay

He turns to me. “You sure about this, Nath? It looks – ”
I pick up a tent peg and head for the ramp. “Nah, it’ll be fine.”
Once you’ve come this far, you can’t just turn around and go home. Once you’ve got half a ramp built, you can’t take it apart and pretend you didn’t really care anyway.

Nathan is sick of seeing other kids get awards. He doesn’t want to be the one who gets a dorky piece of cardboard for being ‘nice’. No, Nathan is sure he’s destined for greatness. And now that the holidays are here, he’s going to achieve it – he is going to break a record. He’s just not sure which record.

Going for Broke is a humorous novel for primary aged readers, which shows what happens when one boy (Nathan) tries everything to get his name in the record books. Nathan and his friends Weasel and Ronnie will stop at nothing to break a record – risking life, limb and fresh breath (there’s a record involving onion eating) in an attempt to be the best at something.

Part of Walker Books new Lightning Strikes series, the length of the story makes it accessible to readers of all abilities, with the interest level and humour ensuring it will be popular with primary aged readers, especially boys. From the eye catching cover design, to the sketches and touches of different text types, this is a winner.

Going for Broke, by Meg McKinlay
Walker Books, 2008

Blackthorn, by Elizabeth Pulford

My name is Blackthorn.
I am in a dream, running free again through the great woods of Gurcross. My bare feet skim across the rough ground. I carry a spear. It is light and easy to handle. Tied around my head is a band stained with my own blood. I am a Trahern warrior.
“Alyana.”
I jolt awake. The dream vanishes. My father’s voice stays in my head. Yet how is this so when he is dead and gone?
The forest is deathly still; no breath stirs except my own, frozen against the darkening moon. My body aches, curled and cramped within this tiny space – a a hollow in the rotting trunk of a giant oak. It is my sanctuary.

Twelve year old Alyana is alone in the world. Her mother died less than a year ago, now her father is gone too. She has two choices: to live with her priest uncle and his family or to be a warrior like her father. She chooses the latter, giving herself the name ‘Blackthorn’ and escaping into the forest where she feels most at home. But life in the forest is very tough, much tougher than she ever imagined. Winter brings snow and an awareness that previously she has only played at survival. She realises there is much she must learn if she is to be a warrior, indeed if she is to survive at all. Her father’s advice, given as she grew, is constantly in her head, guiding her on when she falters.

Blackthorn is set in a time where tribal rivalries were strong. The strength of a people was in their ability to protect their own. And that meant warriors. Alyana’s father was a warrior and she is convinced that it is also her destiny. Told in the first person, Alyana refers to herself in the third person when she talks about her warrior-self, Blackthorn. Blackthorn is told in present tense bringing the reader close to the action. There is plenty of action as Alyana scrabbles her way through the time after her father’s death. She struggles with his death, her own impetuous nature and her fledgling survival skills. Alyana grows and matures, learning from her mistakes, remembering her father’s counsel.

Recommended for mid-upper primary readers.

Blackthorn, by Elizabeth Pulford
Walker Books 2008
ISBN: 9781921150470

Ratwhiskers and Me, by Lorraine Marwood

Ratwhiskers is sleeping.
I must have dozed.
I am filthy. I am worn out.
I am hungry.
I’m late to bury a body.
I don’t know where I am.
But just above me the sky is dark.
The stars cold glitter.
Night is safe sometimes.
I unroll.
I ache.

The boy doesn’t remember much – just smoke and running to escape. Now he is on the goldfields, working as cook for three miners. But there are many hardships on the goldfields – death, disease, shortages, and the miners expect him to work hard. There is no kindness. When the boy befriends a Chinese boy tending a market garden, it makes life a little easier – until the miners turn on the Chinese, and the boy finds himself caught between the two groups. Then his Chinese friend discovers his secret, a secret which could make life harder for both of them.

Ratwhiskers and Me is a beautifully rendered verse novel, telling the story of conditions on the Bendigo goldfields in the 1850s. Marwood uses a minimum of words for a maximum impact, bringing to life the hardships of the life of the miners, the harsh prejudices faced by the Chinese and the extremes of human behaviour during the goldrush. The use of the verse novel format allows both a vivid first-person narrative and a paring back of all but the most important details, taking the reader on an emotional journey through gripping events.

A masterpiece.

Ratwhiskers and Me, by Lorraine Marwood
Walker, 2008

White Crane, by Sandy Fussell

I can hear someone groaning. It’s me.
A great shadow looms over my head. I cringe as the shape crouches, ready to spring. Instead it purrs inside my ear.
‘Go to sleep, Niya.’
Claws extended, it prods my blanket around me, before slinking back towards the cliff edge. With a growl, it disappears down the mountain, leaving me to sleep in peace.

It isn’t easy training to be a samurai, but for Niya the task is extra difficult – because he has only one leg. In spite of his disability, Niya dreams of being a great samurai and, in the meantime, of defeating all of the other competitors at the Annual Samurai Trainee Games. First, though, he must get through a gruelling training schedule and a difficult journey to attend the games.

Niya belongs to the Cockroach Ryu, under the training of the great Sensei Ki-Yaga. The other students at the Ryu are, like Niya, disabled. Kyoko has extra fingers and toes, Mikko has only one arm, Taji is blind, and Yoshi is big and strong but refuses to fight. At the Trainee Games they must compete against able-bodied opponents, none more competitive (or nasty) than the Dragons. The reigning champions sneer at the members of the Cockroach Ryu and will stop at nothing to beat them

White Crane is the first title in the new series. This perfectly wrought tale will delight child and adult readers alike. Set in the mountains of Japan, and with a blend of mysticism, adventure and exploration of friendship, this is a wonderful offering for primary aged readers.

Samurai Kids: White Crane, by Sandy Fussell
Walker Books, 2008

Simpson and His Donkey, by Mark Greenwood & Frane Lessac

In time for ANZAC Day 2008, Walker Books Australia have released a very Australian picture book telling the well known story of Simpson and his donkey. Born in England, Simpson was far from home in Australia when World War 1 broke out. He enlisted and found himself not in England, as he’d hoped, but in Egypt and then Turkey, where he worked as a stretcher bearer. In Gallipoli, Simpson found stretchers in short demand, so he enlisted the help of wild donkeys to rescue over 300 wounded men and to transport water to thirsty soldiers. Sadly, as Simpson went once more onto the battlefield he was shot and killed.

This retelling of Simpson’s story is told in simple language but not at the risk of trivialising the story or the war itself. Greenwood has a knack of making history accessible for children. In turn, illustrator Frane Lessac, brings the story to life with gouache illustrations filled with little details and rich colours.

This is an important story beautifully represented in a form suitable for educational use and also private reading.

Simpson and his Donkey, by Mark Greenwood and Frane Lessac
Walker Books, 2008

The Firefighters, by Sue Whiting

Briiiiiing! Briiiiiing!
The alarm screams
‘Quick!’ I say. ‘Coats and boots!’
‘Hats, too,’ says Mia…
We’re being firefighters – just like the REAL ones.

Jack, Mia and their kindergarten friends – and even their teacher, Mrs Iverson – are playing at being firefighters. With a cardboard box as a fire engine they race off to put out the fire. It’s fun being a pretend firefighter. Later, though, Mrs Iverson has a surprise for them – a visit from a real fire engine. The children learn about fire safety at the same time as enjoying the excitement of exploring a real fire engine and meeting real firefighters.

This gorgeous picture book offering serves the dual functions of teaching about fire safety and the role of firefighters, and highlighting the fun of imaginative play. It would be a great classroom tool for fire safety lessons, but is equally just a fun read for home or school.

The illustrations, by award winning illustrator Donna Rawlins are in bold acrylics with plenty of red and yellow, matching the bright red endpapers.

Sue Whiting is an exciting writer, creating stories which kids want to read, and which adults enjoy sharing.

An excellent offering.

The Firefighters, by Sue Whiting and Donna Rawlins
Walker Books, 2008