Book Review: The House on the Hill, by Kyle Mewburn and Sarah Davis

cv_the_house_on_the_hillThis book is a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in three categories: The Russell Clark Illustration Award, the Picture Book Award and the Children’s Choice Picture Book Award. 

When two ghosts are being drawn to a house perched on a hill, you know scary stuff is going to happen and in this fantastically illustrated book, it does.

A children’s version of the spooky, much loved Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven; the text and illustrations perfectly complement each other, drawing an atmospheric cloak around the ghosts as they make their way up to the house on the hill and then…inside.

For the darkness of this book and the scare factor, there is a delightful twist at the end, this book will delight children who enjoy being frightened. The book is probably best suited to the older child who enjoys a more sophisticated picture book.

by Marion Dreadon

The House on the Hill
by Kyle Mewburn and Sarah Davis
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775430841

Vote now for the Hell Children’s Choice Award

Book Review: My Grandpa is a Dinosaur, by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones

Available now at bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_grandpa_is_a_dinosaurI was delighted to see that Penguin Random House NZ has picked up two of the most talented comic artists in New Zealand, for My Grandpa is a Dinosaur. Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones have published several children’s books over the last few years, through their own publishing imprint, Square Planet Comics. Each of their books can be trusted to have a wry comic undertone running alongside a great imagination-fuelled story that kids really enjoy.

My Grandpa is a Dinosaur has a fairly self-explanatory premise. Our little heroine Wanda seems to be the only person in her family who has noticed though. Well, she and the paleontologists, who are always following him for footprints. She stands up at the front of the class to tell her class about this oddity, and while her classmates are quite happy to cast their own grandpas as highwaymen and robots, they are certainly not letting her get away with that one.

My son Dan keenly followed the story, wondering why it was that nobody seemed to believe Wanda that her grandpa was a dinosaur, when he so self-evidently was. I mean, he had to have a special car seat on top of the car, for crying out loud. And he was green!

She tried to tell her friend
– See, he has a tail!
But her friend didn’t believe her
– Horses have tails, that doesn’t make horses dinosaurs.

The story is told in a one-frame-per-page comic style, with exposition at the bottom of the frames, and speech bubbles telling the story. The illustrations are caricature-like, and grandpa towers over the rest of them in all his dino-glory.

Wanda figures out she should just go to the source, and sure enough, Grandpa has been wondering when somebody would notice.

A brilliant message, and a brilliantly well-executed book. And most importantly, it’s a whole lot of fun. I recommend it for 3 – 8 year olds, as it goes through to the sophisticated picture book audience as well, thanks to the two-track humour. I hope to see Penguin stretching their boundaries even further in the future.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

My Grandpa is a Dinosaur
by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143507192

Book Review: Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill, by Debbie McCauley

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_motiti_blue_and_the_oil_spill

Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill is a beautifully told story which follows the experience of a little blue penguin, called Mōtītī Blue, as he tries to survive the oil spill from the Rena ship grounding in 2011.

The pages are packed with great photos, interesting facts and a wonderful story, written in both English and Māori. There is newfound knowledge on every page, from descriptive fact files to illustrated maps, all providing lots of detail about penguins’ life cycles and habitats, the ship’s grounding, and the rehabilitation of affected wildlife.

The story, in both English and Maori, is well-written and would appeal to children of all ages. This book is ideal for both recreational reading and classroom use. The book is packed with factual background material which would make this book a perfect teaching resource in schools. Although it is a very informative book on its own, it also includes a handy list of sources for further research.

Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill is a very clever book indeed and a worthy finalist in the non-fiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults.

Review by Elisabeth Matsis (9), with a little bit of help from Tiffany Matsis

Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill
by Debbie McCauley
Published by Mauao Publishing
ISBN 9780473268695

Book Review: Jim’s Letters, by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookstores nationwide, Picture Book finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Jim’s Letters
is a deserving finalist in the New Zealand cv_jims_lettersBook Awards for Children and Young Adults. A sophisticated picture book, it gently details the journey of a young man heading off the big adventure of World War I, from the excitement of being overseas and the anticipation of seeing action, to the boredom of camp life and then the dawning horror of the reality of life on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Letters are exchanged between Jim, the soldier, and Tom his younger brother, who is still at home. It’s a nice insight into what the War might have been like for those at home, especially those young men who wished they were old enough to enlist. Tom also conveys the feelings of his parents – worry for their son – and the reality for those left at home who had to muck in and make up for all the missing people from the workforce.

Along with the increasingly poignant letters are wonderful, evocative illustrations by Jenny Cooper. Even without the words you could follow the story of Jim from youthful enthusiasm to the grinding misery of the trenches, just from the pictures.

It is clever of the designers to incorporate something of a 3D effect with the book, using envelopes, removable letters and lift-the-flaps to further bring the book to life. This also makes the story more real, particularly for modern children in a digital age, where letters delivered by post are becoming a rarity.

I asked three boys that I teach at my school to read the story and tell me what they thought of it. Nik, 9, liked that you can open out the letters. He said that it was both a sad and funny story – he liked that no-one wanted to play the ‘bad guys’ back home in New Zealand. Jack, 10, enjoyed the “good describing words” of Glyn Harper’s letters, and felt the story was sad and emotional. Anaiwan, also 10, agreed that the story was very emotional, and would recommend the story to children aged 8 or older.

Sadly, like so many war stories, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. A younger reader may well need adult support to understand what has happened in the story, and to discuss the reality of war a little further. There is a helpful two-page non-fiction spread at the end of the book which adds perspective and context for readers.

This is not a book to read to 5-year-olds, but for children who are in middle primary or older, it is a beautifully-told heart breaker, and timely as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and then the battles in Europe and beyond.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore, teacher at Newtown Primary School

Jim’s Letters
by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143505907

The blog to end our 20-day blog tour!

BookAwards_CC_900x320_v3_bannerWe have just finished a fabulous four-week tour around our authors inspirations, aims and achievements with their Children’s Choice finalist books. Now it is time for you to help your kids to vote their favourite book and author to win: they will be in to win a selection of finalists for themselves and their school if they do! Kids can select a winner in each category; the winning book of each category will win a prize at the Book Awards ceremony on Thursday 13 August. Thank you to all of the other blogs who have hosted these interviews!

Children's_choice_ya_fic_V2jpgDuring the first week of our tour, we heard from the Young Adult fiction finalists. We heard from Ella West (who, like any good super author, writes under a pseudonym) who dedicated Night Vision to Trish Brooking, because she still takes her out for lunch, after looking after her as Otago Education College Writer in Residence in 2010. We learned that Natalie King has not one but three pseudonyms, and was inspired by a dream of a lake to write the book Awakening, which begins with a mysterious necklace drawn from a lake. While Jill Harris sadly passed away in December, Makaro Press publisher Mary McCallum told us that she published her book The Red Suitcase because the opening chapter inside a Lancaster bomber had her riveted. I Am Rebecca was a return to a character that author Fleur Beale had written about before, in I am not Esther. She told us that the secret to her amazing characters is simply to “walk in the shoes of the character so that what happens to the character informs the story.” Our final YA author was Nelson-based Rachael Craw, who had two interviews in two different places! Spark was also inspired by a dream, which took 5 and a half years to come to fruition: she had to learn to write first! She was inspired by the power of DNA when she met her birth mother.

Children's_choice_picbook_v4Week two saw us jump back a few reading years to the Picture Book finalists. Scott Tulloch ran I am Not a Worm past fellow Children’s Choice finalist Juliette MacIver and her kids, and her oldest son Louis suggested what became the final line in the book: “I like butterflies.” Yvonne Morrison, author of Little Red Riding Hood…Not Quite, told us she was about to leave NZ for a new job in Vietnam, living on a jungle island and managing a centre for endangered primates! Donovan Bixley covered two finalist books in one interview, Little Red and Junior Fiction book Dragon Knight: Fire! and he said that working with the same authors again and again means he can just do a messy scribble at the early stage of illustrating, and they will trust him to flesh it out!  Jo van Dam wrote doggy rhymes for her own children when they were young, and this became Doggy Ditties from A to Z. This is illustrated by Myles Lawford, who had to do a lot of research to make sure he illustrated each breed accurately. Peter Millet answered his own question about pets in the army with The Anzac Puppy, illustrated by Trish Bowles, who used to get in trouble at school for drawing: she now gets rewarded for it! Juliette MacIver likes to feature things in her books that children see in their everyday lives – “monkeys, old wooden galleons, pirates, for example, things that children encounter most days on their way to kindy or school.” Marmaduke Duck and the Wide Blue Seas was the third in the series by her and Sarah Davis, who reckons Juliette sometimes writes things in just to annoy her: ”52 marmosets leaped on board”?!? Seriously!!? Do you know how long it takes to draw 52 marmosets? Much longer than it takes to write the words “52 marmosets”, that’s for sure.”

Children's_choice_JUNIOR_V4We began the Junior Fiction category with an interview with Kyle Mewburn, author of Dragon Knight: Fire!, the first in a new series for the younger Junior Fiction age-group, and a finalist in both the children’s choice and the judges’ lists. Kyle doesn’t let his ideas float around “in case they escape, or some sneaky author steals one.”  The lead character in 1914 – Riding into War, by Susan Brocker, was inspired by her grandfather, Thomas McGee, who served as a mounted rifleman in WW1. Desna Wallace lived through the Canterbury Quake, and the character of Maddy popped into her head on the way home from work as a school librarian one day. “It was a bit crowded in there, so I sat down and wrote it out,” she said. Stacy Gregg‘s story The Island of Lost Horses began when she fell in love, with a picture of an Abaco Barb horse, the breed featured in this story; which is inspired by real events. Suzanne Main won the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon award for the manuscript for How I Alienated My Grandma. This came with an offer of publication from Scholastic NZ, which enabled her to keep backing herself and her work to succeed.Children's_choice_NON_FIC_V3

The Non-fiction category tour began with the double-nominee (in judge’s and children’s choice lists) Māori Art for Kids, written and illustrated by the husband and wife team, Julie Noanoa & Norm Heke. Their aim was “to create something for families to connect with and appreciate Maori art.” Poet Sarah Jane Barnett featured poetry title The Letterbox Cat & other poems by Paula Green and Myles Lawford on her blog The Red Room. Paula says, “When I saw the way the zesty illustrations of Myles Lawford danced on the page, I cried!” Maria Gill followed up her New Zealand Hall of Fame of 2011 with New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions – she says the toughest task was to decide who to leave out. Gorgeous illustration guide book A New Zealand Nature Journal, by Sandra Morris, was featured next on NZ Green Buttons. Sandra’s favourite thing to do when not drawing or managing her illustration agency, is tramping, unsurprisingly!  Philippa Werry was in last year’s awards with her great Anzac Day book, and this year she was a children’s choice finalist for Waitangi Day: The New Zealand Story, featured on Barbara Murison’s blog. Philippa focused this book on the day itself, as opposed to the treaty, and she enjoys doing cryptic crosswords while contemplating writing.

While this tour is ending, we will be carrying on our celebration of the book awards, promoting the judges’ list in the Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in the run-up to the awards announcement at Government House on 13 August 2015. There will be giveaways and reviews, and fun besides, so watch this space!


For the full links list for the Book Awards, please head here.

Other blogs involved were: NZ Booklovers blog, Booknotes Unbound, Around the BookshopsThrifty Gifty, My Best Friends are Books, NZ Green Buttons Blog and The Red Room.

Interview with Maria Gill about New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions


New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions was voted for by kiwi kids all around New Zealand as a finalist in the Children’s Choice list for the Book Awards. Author Maria Gill has written many book awards finalists, including New Zealand Hall of Fame, which won the non-fiction category of the Children’s Choice awards in 2012.

Maria is a fulltime writer, and lives in Matakana. We wondered how she came up with her latest book, and how she narrowed down the sports stars, and this is what she told us.

Maria Gill_NZ Sports Hall of Fame1.  As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book in particular?
In past awards the judges said there was a need for more books for boys – and where were the sports books. I had intended the New Zealand Hall of Fame book to be part of a series, and a sports book seemed the obvious one to do next.

2. Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?
First of all I had to decide who I was going to include in the book. The list of 25 sports people was constantly being revised. I even polled people – should I have Dan Carter or Richie McCaw? I contacted sporting agencies and asked them who they would recommend. I had to weigh a sporting legend up, who the target age might not know, against an up-and-coming star that they would know. Then I had to gather information about the sports stars, and that proved to be quite a challenge for some of them.

Sometimes they were touring overseas and were impossible to contact. If someone had written a biography about them, I could read that and take notes. If there wasn’t a biography, I had to trawl through a lot of newspaper articles, radio and television interviews to put a story together about them. Problems occurred if the media articles were incorrect. We sent each sports person/manager their biography and asked if they could fact check it. This helped to prevent any misinformation being printed in the biographies.sportshalloffame_page2

3. How did you tailor this book to the age-group it reaches?
Marco Ivancic’s life-like caricatures immediately draw the age group to the book. I wrote the biographies from when the sports people were their age (8-14 years) and included any problems they had to overcome. I wanted kids to realise that problems can be overcome, and dreams reached. A constant message that came through the book was that it takes a lot of dedication to make it to the top. Everyone has the potential to do that if they are prepared to do the hard work. I also included the sports stars training programme and at the back of the book kids can write up their training schedule. They can also set goals to help them achieve their sporting dreams.

4. Who have you dedicated this book to, and why?
I dedicated the book to my Dad. When I was young, he always encouraged us to do sport such as athletics and ice skating. He had organised one of the first national sporting events in New Zealand and was mad keen on many types of sports.

5. Can you recommend any books for children/young adults who love this book?
David Riley has written some chapter books on famous sports stars such as Jammin’ cv_jammin_with_steven_adamswith Steven Adams, Off-loading with SBW and Steppin’ with Benji Marshall.

6. What is your favourite thing to do when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
I love to dance. I started ballet when I was five years old but gave it up at nine years of age. (Mum had to catch two buses with three kids for me to do it.) I figure skated for a few years and competed nationally. In my early twenties, I returned to dance and have been doing it regularly since. All the dancers in my ballet class are over 40 years old now. We can still do a mean pirouette. I love to dance because I am exercising while doing something creative.


For more information about Maria Gill or  New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions, go to Maria’s website.

Teaching notes for the title are here.

Bob Docherty has reviewed the title here.

We are drawing to the end of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults children’s choice blog tour, with just two days left! Our last feature was about The Letterbox Cat & Other Poems, by Paula Green & Myles Lawford, on Sarah Jane Barnett’s website The Red Room. Tomorrow, we will feature A New Zealand Nature Journal, on NZ Green Buttons.

To be in to win a copy of New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame: 25 Kiwi Champions, comment on this Facebook post to tell us your favourite sports star.

Author Interview: Stacy Gregg, author of The Island of Lost Horses

harpercollins_vote_nowStacy Gregg has been voted for by kids all over New Zealand to become a
finalist in the Children’s Choice Junior Fiction category, for the second in her series of horse books inspired by true stories. She is also in the judge’s list for this year’s Junior Fiction award. Her 2013 book, The Princess and the Foal, was a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

We asked Stacy a few questions about where this story came from, and how she went about researching it.

1. What was the genesis for this, your second story inspired by a true horsey tale?
It began when I fell in love. I was looking through a book of rare horse breeds and I turned the page and there was this incredible creature with startling blue eyes, this face as white as bone china, strange markings like a dark bonnet over its ears, and a mane so tangled with sea grasses that it looked like it had dreadlocks. That was my first experience of seeing an Abaco Barb. I’d never even heard of them before, but I was struck by this image and so I began to research the horse and discovered that its story was remarkable.


The breed has lived in total isolation on a desert island in the Caribbean for 500 years and its DNA can be traced directly to the ancient bloodlines of horses in Spain. The bloodlines prove the Abaco Barbs came over from Spain with Christopher Columbus – but how did they end up running wild on this island in the middle of the Bahamas? I started to put the puzzle together and produced a dual narrative told through the eyes of two young girls, one in the present day in the Bahamas and the other in Spain in 1493. Beatriz and Felipa are both in love with their horses and will ultimately risk their lives to save them.

2. What were the main resources you used to do your research? Which of these shaped the book the most?
Stacy Gregg 2013 cr Carolyn HaslettAs an ex-journalist I am very vigorous when it comes to the research for my books. The starting point is usually location: I had already travelled to Spain for a previous novel so I had my key locations there like the Alhambra clearly in my mind and my editor, Lizzie Clifford, who has worked with me now on 16 books, grew up in the Bahamas.

Back home, I built up a library of excellent detailed historical reference books on Queen Isabella and Columbus and Spain in 1493, but some details required more certainty than the books could provide. I have one particular scene where a key character dies from the Black Death. To be absolutely certain I had my facts right I had to track down the world’s pre-eminent authority on Bubonic Plague, Dr Joseph Byrne at Belmont University in the United States. He was an amazing resource – I am now a plague expert thanks to him. I also know how to navigate a carracas from Spain to the Caribbean and can speak fluent Bahamian patois! I could also bore you to tears about the intricacies of the life cycles of sea thimble jellyfish (one of the characters is a marine biologist).

3. How did you tailor this book to the age-group it reaches?
I am always surprised when I get the printed book back and realise that I have in fact written a kids book because the process to me feels frightfully adult. There’s such a depth of history and fact in my stories. I want young readers to come away from a novel feeling like they have all this newfound knowledge absorbed almost by osmosis – the byproduct of a swashbuckling good yarn. There’s no reason why you can’t learn and have fun at the same time!

4. Can you recommend any books for children/young adults who love this book (and your other books!?)
I’ve been having vigorous debates about this with friends lately about what middle graders should be reading. I feel very strongly about the need for children’s literature to provide strong, positive role models that young readers can aspire to be. I love the fact that the girls in my books are powerful and heroic and solve their own problems. I think reading cv_watership_downabout characters who face their fears and achieve their goals can be inspiring for young readers. I get quite a bit of tear-jerking mail from my readers telling me that my books have inspired them to ride horses and pursue their pony dreams.

When you are reading, I think you should want desperately to be the character. I wanted so bad to be Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Or Alec Ramsay in The Black Stallion. I definitely wanted to be Hazel in Watership Down. Rabbits can be heroes too.

6. What is your favourite thing to do when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Horses – always, always horses.

Win a Copy Now! 


If you want to know more about Stacy, check out her website here.

For reviews of her book, check out Bob Docherty’s review here.

This is day 14 of the blog tour featuring each of the finalists in the Children’s Choice category of the awards. Yesterday’s feature was Canterbury Quake, by Desna Wallace, on My Best Friends are Books. Tomorrow’s feature will be How I Alienated My Grandma, by Suzanne Main, which will be covered on Booknotes Unbound.

What you might have missed from the Junior Fiction list:

Dragon Knight: Fire!, by Kyle Mewburn & Donovan Bixley
1914 – Riding into War, by Susan Brocker
My Story: Canterbury Quake, by Desna Wallace