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