The Littlest Witch, by Martine Allars

Gwen Henderson stared out of the car window miserably. They were in the slow lane on the freeway and the other cars were speeding past their red station wagon.
As they hit a pothole in the road the entire car, including the trailer, the luggage and its four passengers, bounced into the air.
‘Sorry,’ Gwen’s father said as a box o books toppled over on the back seat.
The car landed wit a massive thud and a loud metallic crunch. Gwen sighed and flicked her red fringe out of her eyes. ‘Dad, I think you broke the car.’ She paused. ‘Maybe we should just go back to Smithville?’

Gwen and her triplet sisters Nel and Rain are tired of moving all the time. They’ve moved so many times in the past 12 years, and Gwen just wants to stay put. From the beginning though, their time in Jamestown is different. For a start there are people who seem to know who they are. That’s unusual. They also know that the girls are about to turn 13. And they’re staying in their Auntie Sylvie’s house. Gwen didn’t even know they had an aunty! Then there’s Stephanie at their new school. She’s beautiful, talented and oh-so-very nice. She’s so nice that Gwen is suspicious. Rain is enchanted by Stephanie and Nel fails to see why Gwen is suspicious. Soon after their birthday the girls discover they have some exceptional gifts, if only they could work out how to use them. There’s a prophecy too, but none of the girls can believe it refers to them.

The Littlest Witch is the first in a trilogy about fighting evil across worlds. The girls have teachers and protectors but ultimately it’s up to them to work out what they can do and how they will respond to the ‘call to arms’. Each of the triplets has their own unique personality. Gwen is the fiery one, the leader; Nel is the peacekeeper and Rain just wants her world to be normal so she can dance. The bond between the three girls is sorely tested, but the challenges they face require them to work together. The Littlest Witch is told from Gwen’s point of view and the reader shares her turmoil as she adjusts to their life in a new town, with new skills and a new world view. Recommended for upper primary readers, although the cover might attract younger readers.

The Littlest Witch (Littlest Witch)

The Littlest Witch, Martine Allars,
Pan Macmillan 2010
ISBN: 9780330423571

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Hanging Out, by Catherine Bateson

When Mum told me my cousin Weston was coming to stay with us for a week of the school holidays, I was totally alarmed.
‘Why here?’
‘Aunty Sharon and Uncle Jason have won seven nights on a cruise ship. Just imagine – seven nights of no cooking, no washing up, no worrying.’
‘He can’t come here!’
‘Of course he can,’ Mum said sharply. ‘We’ve stayed with them.’

Ben is worried about his Sydney cousin coming to stay. When they stayed Weston and his family they had visited everywhere from the zoo to the harbour bridge and more. Ben is worried that Weston will discover that he was exaggerating the wonderful things about Melbourne. But despite his misgivings, Weston arrives. He’s keen to do and see all the things Ben bragged about. After a slow start, Ben discovers that they can have just as much fun at his house, and that Weston is just as impressed with Ben’s Melbourne as Ben was with Weston’s Sydney. Colour illustrations on every opening extend as well as illuminate the text. Potentially challenging words are presented in different fonts.

Hanging Out is part of the Mate series from Omnibus Books. They are beginner chapter books for newly independent readers. But they also celebrate what it is to be Australian. The rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne is explored and gently rocked. Catherine Bateson points out that home is where family and friends are, that the rest is just bonus. Ben and his cousin rediscover just how much fun they can have together. Many of the offerings in this series are tall tales. Hanging Out is less tall tale, but no less iconically Australian for that. Recommended for newly independent readers.

Hanging Out (Mates)

Hanging Out , Catherine Bateson, ill Adam Carruthers
Omnibus Books 2010

ISBN: 9781862918290

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Barnesy, by Allayne Webster

Dad hates mowing the lawn. He says Victor the Lawnmower is evil. My dad is the only one I know who has a name for his lawnmower. No one else’s dad’s lawnmower has a name. I’ve checked. I asked all the kids in my class.

Hannaford is called Hannaford because of an inventor of farm machines. Stumpy the cockatoo is called Stumpy because he was found on a stump having a fight with a stumpy tailed lizard and because Dad is stumped to know how Stumpy won. Hannaford has had enough with these names. He wants to name the next animal that comes to their house. He wants a sensible name. So when his chance comes he calls the new lamb Barnesy after his favourite singer. He discovers that perhaps he’s acquired some of his namesake’s inventing skills and then there’s his solution to Dad’s regular arguments with Victor. Tom Jellett has used collage and pencil to perhaps mimic a school project.

Barnesy is a new title in the Mates series from Omnibus. Barnesy celebrates a very Australian way of life, where children can still run free and animals can always find a safe home. Hannaford’s might be frustrated with the strange names around his place, but he’s still very attached to his family and the way they work together. This family is not perfect – Mum gets cross with Dad, Dad gets cross with Victor, Hannaford gets cross with his sister, but they all pull together when they need to support an injured animal. Told in first person, Hannaford tells his story with warmth and truth. Barnesy is full of wry humour and is sure to be enjoyed by newly independent readers (and their parents!)

Barnesy (Mates)

Barnesy, Allayne Webster ill Tom Jellett,
Omnibus Books 2010
ISBN: 9781862918214

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can bre purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through these links supports Aussiereviews.

Thrill City, by Leigh Redhead

Remembering my training I depressed the door handle with my elbow, nudged it open with my foot, then wished to god I hadn’t. My stomach shrivelled and I had to lean against the frame to stop my legs bucking beneath me.
I was staring into an office with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the river. More unpacked boxes were stacked against the walls, and between me and the massive desk sat a high-packed leather swivel chair, facing away.
And the whole room was covered in blood.

Simone Kirsch is back in business, celebrating the opening of her very own detective agency. But when crime novelist Nick Austin hires her to show him how she works, she doesn’t expect this innocent-sounding job to land her deep in hot water. Nick’s ex-wife is found brutally murdered, Nick himself disappears, and Simone is deep in trouble. Someone wants to kill her, and her investigative license has been suspended. Only by finding Nick Austin, and figuring out who wants to kill both her and him, will she get her life back on track.

Thrill City is the fourth title featuring sassy ex-stripper turned PI Simone Kirsch and ,like its predecessors, this offering is a blend of action, suspense and wry humour. Kirsch is likeable, flawed, and self-deprecating. Her first person narration takes the reader on a ride through the highs and lows of her investigation and her personal life. Favourite characters from earlier books, including her friend Chloe, now heavily pregnant, also add interest.

Great stuff.

Thrill City

Thrill City, by Leigh Redhead
Allen & Unwin, 2010

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

The Innocents, by Nette Hilton

Missie Missinger was nine years old. Old enough, her mother had said, to do as she was told without argument. It was wearing her into the ground and if she didn’t watch out, Aunt Belle would be looking around for someone who didn’t have a quarrelsome little girl to put up with and get herself another live-in and then where would they be? Missie wasn’t sure but, as she rather liked living in ‘Charmaine’ at No 1, River Road, Lansdale, she didn’t pursue it. And so on the day it happened, on the Saturday when Judith Mae, who wasn’t even invited, had been sent upstairs in order to give her father some peace and quiet, Missie hadn’t argued.

Missie Missinger is a little girl restrained by many things. Her mother’s work and even where they live appears to be dependent on her behaving well. She’s not to use the front door. She’s not to disturb the boarding house guests. Then there’s Max. Max is the owner’s son. He likes his model trains and he likes pushing Missie around. And he knows that she can’t ‘dob’ on him, that no one will believe her. Missie has few friends at school until Zill arrives. There is Jimmy, but he’s always in trouble. Missie has a lot of time on her own while her mother manages the boarding house, and she begins a tentative friendship with a Ukrainian migrant youth who has come to live there. Oleksander Mykola Shevchenko works hard and keeps to himself but it’s not easy to be a migrant in a small town in the ‘50s. And then there are the secrets. To tell means trouble for Missie. But there can be an enormous cost to keeping secrets.

There are at least two ‘innocents’ in The Innocents. And neither are traditional young adult literature protagonists. One is nine years old. The other is twenty, new to Australia but carrying with him the horror of the war. Oleks is both young and old. The Innocents is told from both Missie’s and Oleks’ point of view, although Missie has the lion’s share of the story to tell. Missie is trying to find her way through a childhood hampered by her mother’s dependence on her live-in job, the places she must and must not go (though she’s not always sure why) and the murky world revealed (or not) in adult words. Oleks carries heavy memories of war and the challenges of being different, foreign. There are themes of racism and the dynamics of family. The cover hints at the darkness within and both Missie and Oleks are weighed down by their different burdens. The resolution provides hope for the future, but shows the high cost of secrets. Recommended for mature readers.

The Innocents, Nette Hilton
Random House 2010
ISBN 9781864718744

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Guardian of the Dead, by Karen Healey

I opened my eyes.
My legs were bound and my head ached. There was one dark moment of disorientation before the bad-dream fog abruptly lifted and I woke up all the way and rolled to smack the shrilling alarm.
I was exactly where I was supposed to be: in my tiny room, lumpy pillow over my head and thick maroon duvet wrapped around my legs. I disentangled myself and kicked the duvet away. The muffled tinkling as it slithered off the foot of the bed reminded me that Kevin and I had stored the empty beer cans there.
Well, that explained the headache.

Ellie Spencer has opted to study her last year of school in Christchurch after her parents head off for a year travelling. She had other options and while she understands their need to travel after ‘Mum’s Cancer Year’, she not really sure why she chose Christchurch, grey wintery Christchurch. Ellie is tall, a black belt in tae kwon do but has little self confidence. Luckily she has made one close friend, Kevin, although his friend Iris is not so welcoming. Ellie is pulled in to help choreograph the fight sequences for the local university play Iris is directing, but not before she develops a crush on Mark. That’s when things become suddenly much more confusing, and Ellie struggles to know what’s real and what is magic. Before she knows what’s happening, she’s pulled into a battle way beyond her understanding.

Ellie seems like a normal teenager, living away from home, finding her way through the freedoms and otherwise of her new life. She tells her story with a self-deprecation and lack of confidence of many teenagers, but it’s clear that whether she knows or not, whether she uses it or not, she has a quiet strength. And it’s not just the tae kwon do skills. Karen Healey uses Maori mythology to bring to life characters full of magic and menace. Ellie struggles to know who she is, who she can trust, in an escalating battle where there’s no time to ‘wait and see’. Maori creation stories come to life in this fantasy which melds reality with fantasy in a gripping adventure. Recommended for mid- to upper-secondary readers.

Guardian of the Dead

Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey
Allen & Unwin 2010
ISBN: 9781741758801

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Alice Miranda on Holiday, by Jacqueline Harvey

Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones said goodbye to her friends on the steps of Winchesterfield Manor.
‘Please try to be brave, Mrs Smith.’ She wrapped her arms around the cook’s waist.
‘Dear girl.’ Mrs Smith sniffled into her tissue, then fished around in her apron pocket to retrieve a small parcel wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘Some brownies for the drive.’
‘Oh Mrs Smith, my favourites! You really are the best brownie cook in the whole world. I’ll share them with Mummy and Jacinta. You know, I was thinking you should make them for Kennington’s. I’m sure we’d sell kazillions. Imagine: Mrs Smith’s Scrumptious Melt-in-Your-Mouth Chocolate Brownies”.’ Alice-Miranda underlined the invisible words in the air. ‘Wouldn’t that be amazing – you’d be famous!’

In the first Alice-Miranda story, this tiny girl managed to change her school by the power of her optimism and good will. Alice-Miranda on Holiday begins with Alice-Miranda leaving school after her first term there. The staff are sorry to see her go, even though it’s only for a short while. She and Jacinta are very excited to be going to Highton Hall, Alice-Miranda’s home. But despite their welcome there, Alice-Miranda can see that there are strange things happening. There’s the mysterious bad-tempered boy who throws things at them, an unexplained black car, and a movie star guest. When Jacinta is struck down with the flu, it’s up to Alice-Miranda to work out just what’s going on.

Alice-Miranda is Pollyanna as she would be if she’d been born into a very wealthy family. She sees the good in everyone and if there’s a misunderstanding, her direct approach seems to work a treat in sorting it out. She is adored by all, and even those who don’t initially warm to her are soon brought around. Her family are very loving and supportive. This care is extended to her friend Jacinta, whose own parents are equally wealthy but always busy, always elsewhere. Together and separately, they solve one mystery after another in what is a very busy holiday time. Themes are around family and understanding others. Young readers will love the idea of her home and room, her naughty pony and her friends, young and less young. And as for some of the meals… Recommended for independent readers. Younger children will enjoy being read to.

Alice-Miranda on Holiday, Jacqueline Harvey
Random House 2010
ISBN: 9781864719840

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

Tikki the Tricky Pixie, by Tiffany Mandrake

Tikki Flicker was in trouble for planting forget-me-nots in Pisky Marsh.
‘Don’t do that, Tikki Flicker!’ grumbled Uncle Sedge. ‘Remember the Pixie Code – Good pixies mind the marsh.’
Tikki giggled. ‘But Uncle Sedge, I’m a bad pixie. Putting plants where they annoy you is my most favourite bit of badness.’
‘Nonsense,’ said here uncle. He snorted. ‘Bad pixie indeed! Hmph!’
Tikki flickered away. ‘I am so a bad pixie,’ she said.

Hiding in her favourite ‘look-see’ tree, Tikki Flicker discovers that there is a place for bad pixies to go to if they want to properly learn how to be bad. Tikki is thrilled. The Hags Abademy of Badness sounds like somewhere she would really fit in, unlike here in the marsh where she never feels she quite belongs. But entry to the Abademy requires potential students to be awarded a Badge of Badness. And to earn that, no little annoyance will do, Tikki must perform a big badness. To achieve this she enlists the help of a tiny horse imp and a ‘dryfoot’ (human) boy. Martin Chatterton’s humourous black and white sketches are scattered throughout.

Tiffany Mandrake provides both foreword and afterword for Tikki the Tricky Pixie , warning that the story within is really a secret and that the reader must keep it so. She also explains that badness here is more about providing spice to life rather than doing too much harm. And indeed it’s hard to consider Tikki very wicked when her activities include causing flowers to grow where they shouldn’t, and tricking her uncle. Tikki is a delicious bite of mischief, trying very hard to find her place in the world. Recommended for independent readers.

Tikki the Tricky Pixie (Little Horrors)

Tikki the Tricky Pixie, Tiffany Mandrake ill Martin Chatterton
Little Hare 2010
ISBN: 9781921541322

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond . Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

There's a Goat in My Coat, by Rosemary Milne

Wriggle and Giggle
Wriggle your fingers
And wriggle your toes
Wriggle your hips
And wriggle your nose
Wriggle your bottom
And wriggle your head
Wriggle and giggle
And jump out of bed!

There’s a Goat in My Coat is a picture-book sized, hard cover collection of poetry from the author of the ‘Playschool’ song ‘There’s a Bear in There’. The opening poem is about getting out of bed, and the final poem rounds off the collection with the same poem, re-jigged for going to bed. In between, there are poems to reflect a wide range of days. Some are nonsense narrative poems like ‘Bouncy Bear’ and the more realist ‘Round and Round the Roundabout’. Others are about slippers and socks and rolling down hills. The title of the collection comes from a poem called ‘I’m a Walking Zoo’, a nonsense rhyming poem. There are long poems and short ones and following around the page ones. Illustrations range from real to absurd and are loose watercolours and pencil.

It’s clear from the outset, that There’s a Goat in My Coat is going to be a fun collection for young children. It’s silly and funny and perfect to read out loud. The content is styled to make the listening to the individual words and lines as much fun as the poem itself. There’s a mixture of poetic styles too, with rhyming poems, rhythmic ones, and others that employ repetition to good effect. There are poems that ask to be acted out, poems for counting, observational poems, something for every taste. The illustrations add to the humour and fun. Some are full colour, others are set in white space. Front endpapers are set on the same sunny yellow as the cover, while the end endpapers reflect the going to bed of the final poem. A perfect collection to give away as a gift, or to keep to share with your own young children.

There's a Goat in My Coat

There’s a Goat in My Coat, Rosemary Milne, ill Andrew McLean
Allen & Unwin 2010
ISBN: 9781741758917

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.

Sucked Out, by John Parker

Monday. 8.45 am.
First assembly for the winter term at Granley High.
I was sitting with Zainey when he leaned over to tell me something. ‘Hey, Dan!’
I knew it was going to be a joke because he was grinning. It was an ugly sight. Then his glasses fell off and landed on the floor.
‘Your spectacles, young man,’ I said, tossing them back. ‘Now, what did you wish to impart to my superior intelligence?’

Dan and Zainey are back in another adventure with the eyeball. This is the eyeball that caused them trouble in Sucked In, although Sucked Out works just fine as a standalone read. In Sucked Out the thought-to-be-destroyed eyeball reappears at school assembly. Havoc reigns when Grimmo, maths teacher, keels over on stage. The eyeball is loose at school and it’s after blood. Zainey is obsessed by the eyeball, despite the fact that it’s creepy and has caused heaps of trouble in the past. It cost him lots of money and he wants it back. Dan convinces Zainey that he needs help and together the pair, with a little help from Caro and the school cat, Fleabag, set about capturing the eyeball.

Sucked Out is a new title from Walker Book’s Lightning Strikes series. With fast-paced short novels, this series is designed for upper primary, early secondary readers, particularly reluctant readers. Dan is engaging and dry as narrator. He’s keen to help save his friend from the eyeball, but he’s not above a joke or two on the way. He’s a convincing young teenager as is his friend, Zainey, who has finally had a growth spurt but is still struggling to establish his identity. Caro, their friend, casts about on the edge of their friendship, a grounded, more mature character, who helps when their efforts fail. A fun read.

Sucked Out, John Parker
Walker Books 2010
ISBN: 9781921529689

Reviewed by Claire Saxby Children’s book author.

This book can be purchased online from Fishpond. Buying through this link supports Aussiereviews.