Book Review: Bruce Finds a Home, by Katherine van Beek

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_bruce_finds_a_home.jpgThe tiny grey kitten on the front of this colourfully illustrated book elicited an immediate cooing “awwww” from my school-age children. I thought they would be much too old for picture books by now but Bruce Finds A Home was snatched up immediately upon sight, the combination of cute cat plus delicate artwork proving a winning combination.

Bruce the Cat was found as a day-old kitten, lying helpless by the side of a road in central Auckland. Now two years old and living in Dunedin, he is an internet star with thousands of followers worldwide. This is his first foray into books, with the help of writer Kathryn van Beek.

This beautiful hardcover book was the result of a Kickstarter campaign backed by over 300 keen Bruce fans, eager to see his story in print. The result is a lovely rhyming tale about how a tiny newborn found his forever home – and his name. This would make a great read-aloud for kindergarten-aged children and a handy conversation starter for a gentle discussion about caring for animals.

I am sure this won’t be the last we see of the gorgeous Bruce or his clever “mum” Kathryn.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

Bruce Finds A Home
by Katherine van Beek
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473391737

Book Review: See You When I See You, by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Erikksson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_see_you_when_I_see_youSee You When I See You is the fifth book in the Dani series, about a girl starting the second year of school. The previous four books set the scene for Dani, a girl whose mother is dead and whose Dad spent a long time in hospital recently recovering from an accident. Understanding this context is useful, as without it the story seems oddly complex.

Dani has a bad start to a special day when her Dad asks her if it is OK for his friend Sadie to come over and cook dinner. It is clear from the story that Dani is not happy about this.

That day it is time for Dani’s annual school trip to the Skansen Zoo. The children go on a bus to the zoo, get a lecture about what to do if they are lost and happily have close encounters with some animals. Sadly, two of Dani’s classmates are mean to her, and in her distress she runs away. She remembers to follow the instructions of her teacher, and returns to the last place she saw her class. Suddenly she comes across her best friend, Ella. Ella is at a different school and the children make the most of the happy chance to go off and play.

The books are designed for children aged 5-7 and the publisher, Gecko Press, notes that ‘The series fills a gap of good reading for five- to seven-year-olds. It gives them a proper grown-up reading experience that is accessible but also has emotional weight.’

My seven-year-old daughter very much enjoyed the book, and I could hear the voice of seven-year-old’s in the story. With a seven-year-old’s understanding, not everything in the story is explained. We both enjoyed the illustrations, which show a child’s view of the action.

Books from this series would make a great gift for young readers, particularly those who would enjoy reading their own chapter books.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford.

See You When I See You
by Rose Lagercrantz
Illustrated by Eva Erikksson
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571307

Book Review: Through the Gate, by Sally Fawcett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv-Through_the_gateChange, as the saying goes, is inevitable. As adults, we know that life is full of change; some of them small and easy, others huge and difficult. For most children changes big or small can be scary and hard to cope with. One of the most important things adults can do for children is to help them deal with change in a positive way and Through the Gate is a book that helps to do just that.

The big change that has occurred in Through the Gate is one that would seem exciting to a grown up ‘New town, new school’ however it is clear that, for the girl standing forlornly at the gate, it is anything but. She stares at her ‘new’ house which is drooping, peeling and crumbling and is not happy. Off she plods to school, glaring at her shoelaces.

As time goes on, each day she comes home and stands at the gate, and stares at her house she wonders if something is different; and even if the girl can’t quite put her finger on them, there are small details in the illustrations for the reader to notice. Her travels to school evolve and become more interesting – moving from plodding to wandering, and then more purposefully marching as she picks some flowers, meets a puppy and makes a friend.

The beauty of this tale is the simplicity and gentle message of the text, a message that is delivered with great skill and subtlety. A repeated sequence suggests holding a steady course as time passes, and with time and acceptance, the unfamiliar becomes familiar.

Illustrated by the author, the scenes are mostly black and white – this too conveys the mood on the girl; she is the only spot of colour in a grey, black and white world. Even the end papers reflect the girl’s journey to coming to embrace her new life. As her interest and ease with her new situation develops, so too does the colour in the scenes; from a grey start we end in a full colour picture of a house now become a loved home.

A very cleverly handled and beautifully illustrated story, Through the Gate will be a great way to ease children’s uncertainty and unease over changes happening in their lives. It is a message of hope and encouragement showing that with patience and time, changes may not be so bad and positive things can come from new situations.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Through the Gate
by Sally Fawcett
EK Books, 2017
ISBN: 9781925335415


Book Review: Our dog Benji, by Pete Carter and James Henderson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_our_dog_benjiAs a doglover and owner, and what’s the word for it – dogophile? – I am a sucker for books about dogs. Particularly good picture books about dogs.

Benji is the family dog of the unnamed child who tells the story. Benji bears an uncanny similarity to most of the labradors I have owned – he’s game to try anything and has a tendency to wander in search of food.

The narrator is less adventurous but does finally agree that eating meals at mealtimes is probably a good thing for a kid to do. He and Benji also agree that celery is non-negotiable and possibly not even a food. (I don’t know quite why I think the narrator is a boy but I had to choose a pronoun!)

Pete Carter’s text is simple and clear, and mildly humorous, but the illustrations really make this book. James Henderson has done a wonderful job of making Benji leap off the pages. There’s a lovely moment when a dinner guest surreptitiously gives Benji his broccoli – that will delight most children I know!

I think it’s just delightful and recommend it highly. It’s good for kids who may not be keen on regular eating, for kids who may not be so fond of dogs – you can’t fail to like Benji – and there’s a delight on each page.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Our dog Benji
by Pete Carter and James Henderson
EK Booksellers
ISBN 9781925335330



Book Review: The Harmonica, by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burden

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_harmonicaWhen Carlos finds Uncle Jack’s harmonica ‘in a dusty old box tucked back against the wall shadow’ of the attic, he knows he has found a very special thing indeed. His mother has told him about the music Uncle Jack used to play with it, and it seems the harmonica is waiting to be played: ‘He heard the music, barely a sigh but it filled the attic with a promise.’

Carlos begins to teach himself how to play using the sounds of nature as his guide. He starts off quietly at night in his bed and slowly learns the song of the moon, the storm and the wind and rain. Keeping the harmonica a secret for now, he draws more inspiration from the grasses and crickets ‘he sat up and added the sway of the trees’ until one day he is ready to share his secret with his mum. She is delighted to see the harmonica and says she wishes he had been able to get to know his Uncle Jack; to which Carlos replies that he has met him in the music – a beautiful and poignant message. The story comes full circle as he plays his harmonica to the hills beyond, just as Uncle Jack did.

Set in New Zealand’s rural landscape and featuring a boy and his faithful puppy, Andrew Burden’s natural and almost dreamlike illustrations work perfectly with Dawn McMillan’s gentle lyrical prose. Carlos’s connections to nature and his Uncle are reinforced through the harmonica, as Carlos breathes life into it, so too does he bring Uncle Jack’s memory to life. The music imagery is presented so well in the text and illustrations that you can almost hear the harmonica playing.

The subject matter of a soldier who has been killed in service is a serious and important one to tackle for a children’s picture book, and The Harmonica has handled it respectfully and sensitively at a level that is appropriate for young children. Uncle Jack’s death is implied without the need for detail that could be unsettling. While we can guess at where he was serving, more important is the scene showing Uncle Jack sharing his music with his troop; this moment of bonding and closeness is surely what the ANZAC spirit embodies.

The Harmonica will be a welcome addition to school resources, linking history to current day for ANZAC learning. Dawn and Andrew have created a moving modern day ANZAC story which gently reminds us all that our service men and women continue to do their duty and serve our country. And that not all of them come home.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Harmonica
By Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burden
Scholastic NZ, 2016
ISBN: 9781775433446

Book Review: Book, by David Miles, illustrated by Natalie Hoopes

Available now at bookshops nationwide.

cv_book_davidThis book is breathtakingly beautiful. Dreamlike and imaginative, you are drawn into the wonder of what can be created with a few pieces of paper and board, and a little artfully-applied ink.

Book is about the book as a physical object. It reminded me a little of the award-winning The Boring Book, and my favourite book about books A Book is a Book. It carries on the recent trend in picture books of talking directly to the reader, drawing them in directly, through a great use of the slow-reveal. As the reader is brought closer and closer to the words, they come alive.

The wee boy who is climbing into the world is then taken into the world of imagination, with floating lighthouses, and a slightly steampunk-feeling world of hot air balloons and blimps, with suspended castles and stairs leading to the top of a story-place. Cut-up newspapers in various languages are used to beautiful effect, but when the narrative of the story is told using these strips of paper I found it very difficult to follow when reading the book aloud to 5-year-old Dan.

As we are drawn closer into the world of imagination, there are little monsters that are reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s illustrations, plus fairies, witches… As the story says, ‘A place where everything is possible.’ Our wee boy gives a key to the witch, and she sends him off on a flying book, into the woods, where many of the most familiar characters of fairy tales await him.

The illustrations by newcomer Natalie Hoopes are utterly faultless – graceful and light, with a sense of wonder infusing each of the pages. The story emphasises the many qualities of books: they are there when you want to learn, when you need a friend, or when you want to escape from world for a bit. There is a slightly long dig at technology, with an accompanying illustration of old electronic equipment: “There, no alarm will disturb and no screen will crack. Because it doesn’t have one. Or an off switch. Or a password to keep you out.”

This is an ode honouring the joy of paper books, and of reading. It would make a beautiful gift book for somebody who is just beginning their reading journey themselves, and discovering the possibilities of the world of literature. It would also make a wonderful resource for schools, for teachers to use the words scattered throughout as story starters. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by David Miles, illustrated by Natalie Hoopes
Published by Familius, distributed here by Exisle Publishers
ISBN 9781939629654

Book Review: Franky, by Leo Timmers

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_frankyThis is right up the alley of any kid who loves aliens, robots, creating, or having adventures. So, anybody, basically. Certainly that counts my 5-year-old, Dan, in for the full set.

Our hero Sam knows that robots exist – in fact, he knows that there is an alien race of robots on another planet somewhere nearby. His parents don’t believe him – not even his dog does. He has a robot-filled room, and nobody to play with them with: so he creates someone to play with.
Not just in his mind, no siree – he actually creates a robot. He fixes together a vacuum cleaner, a rake, an old transistor radio, a reading lamp and a pair of pliers, and he has a bona fide, rolling, playing, talking robot play friend. Their friendship weathers Sam’s need to disguise and hide his playmate in front of his parents, through adventures with water guns, pretty much the most awesome sandcastle ever, until one day, Franky is quieter than usual. He is looking out the window for something.

Leo Timmers is one of my favourite author/illustrators from the off-shore Gecko Press stable, and I was very lucky to meet him at the 2014 NZ Festival Writer’s Week. His book The Magical Life of Mr. Renny is one that Dan seeks out again and again when he wants to hear and see magical moments on paper, and Franky seems destined to be another. The main element that he engaged with in Franky was the creation of a friend. He was dismayed we didn’t have the right type of old-fashioned Electrolux, but we made do with a plastic bucket, a vacuum cleaner top, and something to hold both in place.
Dan was amazed that the robots that came down in the eventual UFO were so similar to Franky, and he was delighted that Franky could go off with his people, and that his parents had to believe in robots at the end. The final page is just perfect, and Dan and I both laughed at the little mole finding the tree in a love-heart shape. I recommend this for anybody who enjoys a well-crafted, sharply illustrated picture book for a child of any age.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Leo Timmers
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781927271940

Book Review: Azizi and the Little Blue Bird, by Laïla Koubaa and Mattias De Leeuw

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_azizi_and_the_little_blue_birdAzizi and the Little Blue Bird is a modern-day fairytale, based on very recent current events. Inspired by the Arab Spring, and in particular the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, author Koubaa and illustrator De Leeuw weave an allegorical tale that has layers of meaning that are not always obvious to the reader

Tih and Reni are dictators, living off the fat of the land in a huge palace and making their presence felt with obligatory photos in the nation’s living rooms. The walls have ears, and free speech is not safe. They are obsessed with capturing all the blue birds in a giant cage. The blue birds are representative of Twitter, and the widespread censorship of the internet by various governments during the revolutions – when I worked this out, suddenly the story made a whole lot more sense, and became more than just a poetic tale. (You can read more about the internet censorship here.)

One of the blue birds escapes, and helps Azizi to rescue the other blue birds, and put an end to the rule of the greedy rulers. Free from oppression, “The people were able to breathe again, and they grew like lentils, danced like palm trees, and curled like calligraphy”. I really loved the use of language within the story, which has been translated from Flemish by David Colmer.

De Leeuw is widely regarded as a Flemish Quentin Blake, and his illustrations certainly capture the energy of the story in the same way that Blake does. The illustrations look simple at first, but are deserving of a second, closer look – there’s lots going on.

I would share this story with children from about 8 years old upwards. As a teacher, it would be a really interesting discussion piece when talking about social media with students at an intermediate or high school. So often social media is portrayed as something for children to be very wary of, with internet bullies, etc; Azizi and the Little Blue Bird gives readers a different perspective on the value of social media. It is also interesting to compare such modern story with traditional fairy tales such as those by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Publishers, Book Island, have helpfully produced some teaching notes, which you find here.

Recommended for readers who like thinking!

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Azizi and the Little Blue Bird
by Laïla Koubaa and Mattias De Leeuw
Published by Book Island Publishers
ISBN 9780994109866

Book Review: Quaky Cat Helps Out, by Diana Noonan, illustrated by Gavin Bishop

Available in bookshops nationwide.cv_quaky_cat_helps_out

Quaky Cat has appeared in an earlier picture book by Diana Noonan. This book was written in response to the Christchurch earthquake and has raised more than $150,000 for Christchurch charities. All author royalties from this book Quaky Cat Helps Out will go to supporting the work of Orphans Aid International.

Diana is an award-winning author of more than 200 publications including young adult novels, picture books, non-fiction, poetry, stories for radio, material for television and short film scripts. Gavin Bishop is an award-winning New Zealand children’s author and illustrator. He has published more than 40 books.

The dedication at the back of this book –

“In memory of the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Quaky Cat Helps Out is a tribute to the brave children and families who have opened their hearts and homes to help a broken city”.

Tiger the ginger cat can’t sleep. He feels uneasy but doesn’t know why.
It’s six in the morning, and Tiger can’t sleep.
He tosses and turns at his friend Emma’s feet.
It isn’t the cold that keeps him awake,
Or the shudder and rumble and bump or a quake.

Even though his house and surrounds are mended after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011 he just can’t settle. Things are not what they seem. A number of cats have lost their homes. Tiger goes around issuing invitations to his displaced friends to come and settle at his and Emma’s house.

This is a fabulous story with lovely illustrations. I had to be very careful reading this story to 4-year-old Abby as she has a rather overactive imagination. We have to be very mindful when the television news is on that she doesn’t hear about a house fire or about any sort of crime. She has a lot of questions about things and broods on them. This isn’t unusual for this age group, but sometimes you have to be careful when broaching different subjects i.e. earthquakes.

Abby did respond very well to this story and was totally engrossed with Tiger and his friends and how they all came to his and Emma’s house. We also talked about sharing and how it’s really good to be nice to people when something bad has happened to them. It’s hard to explain an earthquake to a child that has no concept of what an earthquake involves – it’s hard enough for an adult who hasn’t experienced them first hand either. Abby has two cats of her own, so came up with some good suggestions about what you could do to make sure the cats were safe.

At the back of this book there are comments from children that lived in Christchurch during the quakes.
“Just like Quaky Cat’s friends, my house got cracks and we had to get a new floor. We had to live in a caravan…..our house is still getting fixed from the earthquake.”
– Regan, age 9

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Quaky Cat Helps Out
by Diana Noonan, illustrated by Gavin Bishop
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432975

Book Review: 1915 Wounds of War, by Diana Menefy


Available at bookstores nationwide.

This is the second in a series of books released by Scholastic, and named Kiwis at War, that I have read and reviewed. The series is scheduled to be released one year at a time to coincide with the 100 year commemorations of World War I. The subtitle of this book, Wounds of War, is particularly appropriate.

The main characters are two New Zealand nurses, Mel and Harriet, who volunteer alongside their brothers. Mel and Harriet are also cousins. I like the way that the author makes the transition from excited young people embarking on the first OE, to the reality of entering and working in a war zone. The girls are caring for a continual river of wounded young men, many of them kiwis, who are replaced as quickly as they are able to hobble away. The wounds that are inflicted are both real and metaphorical.

It makes sense that your best friends are your siblings and cousins, given that you grow up spending more time with them than any others, so when you witness the injuries and receive news of their death, the impact is understandably difficult. Diana Menefy has written a compelling and emotional account of the atrocities inflicted at, and the deep sadness resulting from the ANZAC fighting in Gallipoli. There are some high points to leaven the sadness – young people falling in love, dancing with wounded soldiers, and the inner turmoil of young woman waiting for a potential boyfriend to write to her. I’m sure the emotional upheavals of teens are no different now, although more immediate through texting. The year, and book, ends with the first ANZAC day commemorations in 1916.

Menefy also touches on what many now would describe as a pointless waste of young life. The soldiers remark on the inequalities in the trenches and the, sometimes, unfathomable decisions of their commanding officers. While it doesn’t matter in a work of fiction, I’m not sure how authentic this is, or indeed whether the young men at the time understood the futility of their fight. It is likely that at least one young man dared to question the authorities, and I think that this viewpoint is particularly important for young readers. Young people of today need to understand the sacrifices that were made by ANZAC soldiers. I’m only personally starting to understand that the ANZACs might not have been in the right place, after all.

This is a very enjoyable story that takes readers on a journey through this year in history through the eyes of these New Zealand nurses, sharing the ups and downs, seesEurope through their eyes and experiences their losses. The wounds of war are indeed immense, but not forgotten.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

1915 Wounds of War
by Diana Menefy
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432746

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