Book Review: Princess Cora and The Crocodile, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca

cv_princess_cora_and_the_crocodileAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

“Dear Grandmother,” goes the blurb on the back of this new book by Newbery Medallist* Laura Amy Schlitz, “Nobody listens to me. My mother and father won’t let me have a pet and Nanny says I don’t even want one. But I do. And I’m sick and tired of everything. Please help me. Love, Princess Cora.”

Yep, Princess Cora is in trouble. She’s totally constrained by her parent’s desire for her to be the best Princess ever! That means an eternal diet of study, physical training, etiquette schooling and absolute hygiene and cleanliness—at all times! Her life is full of exercises and regimes intended to prep her for her role as Princess. But she’s sick of running in circles around the dungeon gym. And she’s absolutely sick, sick, sick of taking three baths a day! There’s no time for play, getting grubby, reading comics—just being a kid. And she’d love a pet—a dog, a cat anything. Actually, she doesn’t really want one but she’d love the opportunity to decide for herself.

So, Cora writes to her fairy godmother for help.

However, she doesn’t expect that help to come in the form of a crocodile—a crocodile who does not behave properly (just like that rumbustious Cat in the Hat, it seems!). She becomes so frustrated that she falls under the spell of that wicked crocodile who sneaks her away from Princess duties for 24 hours. It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for junior royalty! Well not quite. But things do get a little crazy but by the end both Cora and her parents learn a lesson. All things in moderation, in balance, a mix of what needs to be done and a time for play. A mix of the clean and the dirty. It’s a lesson for all of us. And uniquely told. How they get there, exactly, I’ll have to leave to you, dear reader. All I can say is – don’t trust a crocodile – ever!

With perfectly paced dry comedy, I found this to be a absolutely delightful adventure. A real balance between rebelliousness and responsibility. My 6-year-old could tell the difference, even offer a few cautious gasps here and there. But, on the other hand, there’s a lesson for us parents, too, to allow time for climbing trees, getting dirty, inventing, making mess and having fun! While Cora’s alter ego wreaks utter havoc inside the castle, our obliging royal helicopter parents must reconsider their ways. Before it’s all too gone. Sound like a bit of a comment on modern parenting?

As beginner’s chapter books go, this one is nicely meted out, with 8-10 pages per chapter and liberally interspersed with large, clear water colour style illustrations, courtesy of Caldecott Medal* winner Brian Floca. His simple pen and wash drawings have a slight likeness to some of my favourite English illustrators from the first half of the 20th Century (even though they are Americans). Personalities such as EH Shepard and W. Heath Robinson could ever so carefully sum up the middle classes with simple gentle humour. They always portrayed their people with pointed noses and flushed cheeks. Floca does the same with his. It’s like a throwback to the days of the Winnie the Pooh books or Enid Blyton—a time when a child’s life was less cluttered by electronica and there was more room for the imagination to grow. I’m not saying that Schlitz and Floca want to move back to that time entirely but it’s a move in that direction. As respected producers of children’s books they know what works and draw their inspiration from a classic period of children’s writing.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Princess Cora and The Crocodile
by Laura Amy Schlitz, Illustrated by Brian Floca
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9780763648220

*The John Newbery Medal and Randolph Caldecott Medal are awarded annually recognise the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. They are awarded to writers and illustrators by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

Book Review: William Wenton and the Luridium Thief, by Bobbie Peers, translated by Tara Chace

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_willian_wenton_and_the_luridium_thiefWilliam Wenton and the Luridium Thief was a big hit in Norway, where it walked away with the Ark’s Children’s Book Award in 2015. It has now been translated into 30 languages (including, obviously, English) and is set to become a feature film.

Eight years ago, William’s father was badly injured in a car accident and his grandfather vanished without a trace. Now his family are maintaining a low profile “hiding out” in Norway. William doesn’t know why, but he does know he must not draw attention to himself.

However, the arrival of the “Impossible Puzzle” proves an irresistible lure… and William’s love of cracking codes lead him to expose his talents, and therefore his family. Before they get the chance to flee to a more obscure location, William is captured and drawn into the mysterious Institute for Post-Human Research. Here he meets a wide range of bizarre robots with highly specialised skills, is given a special globe puzzle to solve and learns the secret of luridium, a rare metal that if it fell into the wrong hands, could cause disaster. Unfortunately there is someone else who wants it and will stop at nothing to have it – and William – under their control.

Aside from a few mild twists, the story followed fairly predictable lines. The pacing was good, with plenty of action and a few laughs, and, combined with the relatively simple language and short chapters, make it a good choice for the more reluctant or inexperienced reader. I did find it a bit disappointing that, despite being about code-breaking, there were no codes in the book for the reader to solve. Indeed, none were described in any detail, with William merely relying on his intuition to solve them.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

William Wenton and the Luridium Thief
by Bobbie Peers, translated by Tara Chace
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406371703

Book Review: Awatea’s Treasure, by Fraser Smith

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_awateas_treasure.jpgThis book is a great delight to read.

Awatea, the main character, has been sent to stay with his grandparents and uncles in the country because his dad is not well. The story is set in the far north of New Zealand, and the atmosphere created by Fraser Smith’s writing is very credible and evocative of life in a reasonably remote area.

I was drawn in to this book from the outset. The uncles, prone to fairly rough practical joking, were scarily good and set the scene well for the development of the book.
It has everything – the already mentioned scary uncles, relaxed but firm grandparents, an empty – possibly haunted – house next door, and beaches and forests to explore, neighbours (a long way away) with a nutty parrot and an unseen son. Magic, adventure, what’s not to like?

It’s an excellent story and I don’t want to give away too much detail, but Awatea finds a tree house with some things which surely belonged to the boy who built it – but who is he? Where is he? Is the treasure really valuable? And where does the guy with the horse fit in?
Just read it! I am sure that like you won’t put it down till you have finished.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Awatea’s Treasure
by Fraser Smith
Huia Publishers 2016
ISBN 9781775502944

Book Review: Clover Moon, by Jacqueline Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_clover_moonJacqueline Wilson is admirably prolific. Penning her 100th title, Opal Plumstead, in 2014, Wilson is one of the biggest names in children’s literature in the UK and abroad. Clover Moon continues her fabulous work with vivacious female characters in historically-set fiction for children.

Clover Moon lives with her large family in the squalor of Cripps Alley, a slum in Victorian England. She’s the eldest of six children, and she spends most of her time entertaining and looking after her four half-siblings, her beloved sister Megs, and the other children who live in the alley. Clover’s own mother died in childbirth with Megs, and her father has since remarried a wicked woman named Mildred, who cares very little for Clover and beats her given any opportunity. Life in Cripps Alley is grim, yet Clover (who has been taught to read and write by the crippled doll maker, Mr. Dolly) remains forward-thinking and mostly hopeful about her future.

That is, until she loses the one person she loves most in the world, her sister Megs, to scarlet fever. With a life of servitude to Mildred or poorly-paying factory work ahead of her, Clover plans to escape Cripps Alley and runs away to a home for destitute girls, where a new realm of challenges and surprises awaits her.

Wilson does a fantastic job of truthfully exploring the grim realities of slum life in the Victorian era, without resorting to melodrama. Yet while Clover Moon explores the harsh realities and deep sadness of the time, the unwavering vibrancy of Clover herself keeps the tone up-beat and the plot moving.

At a hefty 385 pages, I would find it difficult to recommend Clover Moon as a gateway for new readers into Wilson’s work. However, veteran readers of Wilson’s fiction will no doubt devour this new tale from the bestselling author – it even features a short cameo appearance from Hetty Feather, one of Wilson’s most well-known heroines. Best of all, the ending is open and abrupt – it’s very possible we’ll be reading more about Clover Moon in the future.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Clover Moon
by Jacqueline Wilson
Doubleday Children’s Books
ISBN 9780857532749

Book Review: Snot Chocolate, by Morris Gleitzman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_snot_chocolateSeriously, who could resist a book called Snot Chocolate? Certainly not me or other Morris Gleitzman fans. Each story is told with just the right amount of humour to convey the overall theme of the book, which is a collection of nine short stories focussing on kids handling a significant moment in their lives.

The range of characters include a medieval peasant suddenly made the king, a lawyer’s daughter trying to help her mother, an overly zealous bacterial wiper, a sibling helping to deal with a troll, a diary-writing dog, a girl giving away hot chips and a boy who meets his demolition fairy.

The kids featured in the stories are every day kids who are just like the nice ones in your school or who live in your neighbourhood: caring, smart, and learning about themselves and the world, and how to deal with a variety of social and personal problems. I love how Gleitzman gives each one a chance to shine, allowing them work out and face their problems with courage and kindness. At the end of each story, each character has grown and developed, giving readers encouragement to be able to do the same.

Entertaining and thought provoking at the same time, every story is well paced and expertly written, with authentic character voices and engaging plots. A short story anthology is a great way to encourage reluctant readers, as they can approach one story at a time if they wish, or can equally plough their way through all of them.

Whether the tween-ager in your life is an avid Gleitzman fan or they haven’t yet read any of his books, Snot Chocolate would make a wonderful summer read.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Snot Chocolate
by Morris Gleitzman
Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN 9780143309222

Book Review: Toad Delight, by Morris Gleitzman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_toad_delightToad Delight is the latest adventure in Gleitzman’s series of tales starring Limpy the Cane Toad. Yes, you read that correctly… the Cane Toad. Can a cane toad really be an heroic main character you ask? Do kids really want to read a story about a cane toad? Yes, and yes! Especially when the story is written by one of Australia’s most popular and successful children’s author who knows how to tell an entertaining and engaging story.

Limpy lives in a swamp with his mum, dad, little sister Charm, and cousin Goliath, and he spends his days trying to solve a great mystery – why humans hate cane toads so much that they aim for them on the highways, leaving Limpy busy loyally collecting his squished rellies: ‘Limpy peered more closely at Aunty Sasha in case she was a bit less squashed and a bit less dead than she looked. But Aunty Sasha, who’d loved a chat when she was alive, wasn’t moving a wart or making a sound. Her chatting days, Limpy saw sadly, were behind her. Along with her mouth, which was squished into her own bottom.’

This problem has been Limpy’s mission for a while and it has sent him on several adventures. In Toad Delight, Limpy sets out to rescue a love-sick Goliath (whose girlfriend is an… ‘interesting’ love interest), who has been ‘chosen’ to star in a TV show. When Limpy catches up to the TV crew and sees the crowds gathering to watch the cane toad show he is thrilled – finally humans are becoming cane toad fans! But then he discovers what the show is really about and he has to get Goliath out of there fast.

Written for readers who enjoy a joke or two (or three) Toad Delight draws you into Limpy’s world with plenty of crazy situations and funny characters. Witty dialog abounds with conversations with ants, mosquitoes, goannas, and the venerable Ancient Abigail.
Gleitzman is a master at capturing the personalities and voices of his characters, and in this case, this is done so convincingly that you forget that the book wasn’t, in fact, written by a cane toad. Limpy is a thoughtful, considerate and resourceful cane toad whose desire to help his family subtly delivers an environmental message wrapped within a very funny story.

A junior novel for late primary or early intermediate aged readers, Toad Delight will have them lol-ing and cracking up all over the place. It may also spark an interest in cane toads.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Toad Delight
by Morris Gleitzman
Puffin Books
ISBN: 9780143309239

Book Review: The Diamond Horse, by Stacy Gregg

cv_the_diamond_horseAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!! Stacy Gregg has, once again, left me gobsmacked. After reading one of her previous novels The Princess And The Foal, I was excited to read this one. Gregg has put an extreme amount of research into this novel, and I felt as if I had been transported halfway across the world, experiencing this story first hand next to Anna.

The Diamond Horse is based on a Russian girl, Anna Orlov, whose father breeds animals and works for the Empress Catherine. When Anna’s father buys a new horse Anna is the one to break him in, but after the horse dies, Anna’s father orders that his son, a three-day-old foal is killed because of his unique appearance. When Anna’s mother dies she gives her a black diamond necklace that holds a secret.

I really enjoyed the persistence and courage that Anna showed throughout the novel, and would recommend The Diamond Horse to anyone who loves horses or anybody between the ages of 7 – 10.

Reviewed by Isabelle Ralston (age 14)

The Diamond Horse
by Stacy Gregg
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008124397

Stacy Gregg will be in-store at Paper Plus Bethlehem for NZ Bookshop Day.

Junior Fiction shorts #1: Frankie Potts, and Johnny Danger

I have spent a very enjoyable week reading through the most recent NZ-written junior fiction to land on our shelves. We have some amazing authors writing books that deserve an international audience. Here are just a few of them, from Puffin (Penguin Random House). Keep an eye on this blog today, because there are two more posts to come – a great resource for those unsure of what to get their new readers next. All reviews by me, Sarah Forster.

Frankie Potts and the Sparkplug Mysteries
by Juliet Jacka, with illustrations by Phoebe Morris

cv_frankie_potts_and_the_sparkplug_mysteriesFrankie Potts is a girl detective who solves mysteries large and small in this, the first of the series by Juliet Jacka. This book has broad appeal, and Frankie is a very relatable character, a not-girly girl who kicks ass when she has to, and has the best dog in the world to help her. Her grandma is one cool character, and her parents are easy-going without letting her get away with too much. Phoebe Morris adds some great touches with her page and small character illustrations.

The biggest mystery in this book centres on Grandma M, her fierce maternal grandmother, whom Frankie learns has more to her than she may have guessed. This is one for every kid who sees the world as a series of mysteries to be solved, who can’t wait for the next one to come around the corner. A Harriet the Spy character for the modern age – with an ultra-clever skateboarding dog. Great for kids aged 6 – 10.

Frankie Potts and the Sparkplug Mysteries
by Juliet Jacka, illustrated by Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin

Frankie Potts and the Bikini Burglar
by Juliet Jacka, with illustrations by Phoebe Morris

cv_Frankie_potts_and_the_bikini_burglar.jpgThis is the second in the Frankie Potts series, and does a fantastic job of widening Frankie’s world, bringing in friends (and enemies!) from school to help her solve a hot pink mess. The book opens with a job ad – Frankie has decided with all the mysteries around Tring, she needs a sidekick. And in the first couple of pages of the book, her wishes are answered, with a boy who might be from Borneo, or Tasmania…or then again he might not.

And just in time. There’s a thief in town, and they are stealing anything pink they can get their paws on. Frankie and her friends come up with a plan of attack, but can they get all their pawns in play in time to save the diamond-encrusted pink bikini at the centre of the mystery? Phoebe Morris’ illustrations add to the fun, and I like the repetition as we carry on trying to solve our mysteries. This is a solidly commercial, well-written mystery series, which I sincerely hope will be published into the UK and US.

Frankie Potts and the Bikini Burglar 
by Juliet Jacka, illustrated by Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143309192

Johnny Danger: Spy Borg
by Peter Millett

cv_johnny_danger_spyborgIf you like your spy mysteries fast-paced and full of toilet humour, Peter Millett is your man. Johnny Danger is an undercover superspy for the MI6 – his cover being, um, that he is a terrible spy. This is the third in this new(ish) series from Millett, who is best known for his UK-published series Boy Zero Wannabe Hero.

No bodily emission is left unturned as Johnny Danger once again fights his mortal enemy Dr Disastrous, who has a new partner in crime – Yuri BoomBoom’ovic, a deranged master puppeteer who controls realistic cyborgs he has named…Yuri-nators. While I was a little old to laugh aloud at the jokes, I found myself engaged in the action nonetheless, which bounds along swiftly, with enough character quirks to make it interesting without loading up on emotion. Recommended for ages 6 – 10, I’m definitely going to be putting this forward for my 6-year-old to consider when we finish our current read-alouds.

Johnny Danger: Spy Borg
by Peter Millett
Penguin Books Australia

Book Review: The Impossible Boy, by Leonie Agnew

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_impossible_boyVincent Gum exists to one person: 6-year-old Benjamin Grey. But he isn’t your standard imaginary friend: Vincent is corporate – Benjamin and he have conversations, and he is always there to protect him, though he sometimes wishes this wasn’t so. Benjamin is constantly making excuses for him: “It was Vincent! You just can’t see him. It’s not my fault he’s invisible.”

This takes the concept behind Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett, and applies it to an intense time of need for one small boy. Benjamin needs Vincent to exist as his protector after an explosion in an underground train, so Vincent is suddenly thrust into corporeal existence. In Agnew’s previous book, Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand, Conrad is looking for a God to protect him: Benjamin has one. But yet, he isn’t a God.

Benjamin, and by extension Vincent, arrive at the beginning of the novel at an Orphanage, during a long war. The setting is grim: “Bombed-out shop walls are covered with missing-persons posters and army slogans, spray-painted with rebel tags and Civil Defence warnings. When there’s no TV or internet access, people turn their cities into newspapers.” There are regular air-raid sirens, but the Orphanage is attached to a Hospital, so the two sides know not to bomb their building. But there is a darkness within the building: the Hangar Man, the closet monster is alive and well and living in a cupboard near where Benjamin sleeps.

While there is food and necessities provided, the orphans that Benjamin falls in with are stealing for the black market, to provide themselves with ready cash should they need to move quickly to another place. This activity of stealing (under innocent-sounding names like Hospitals, Bombing Raids, etc) drives the majority of the action in the novel, as well as Vincent’s search for understanding of what, exactly, he is.

Vincent is, by his nature, an unreliable narrator. He is an interesting character to be inside the head of – he has The Knowing, which gives him infallible knowledge about everything, except what is going on in others’ heads. He only understands partway in that if Benjamin stops believing in him, he no longer exists. The Hangar Man persuades him that he needs to make others believe, to ensure his corporeal future.

Here’s the thing: I have read my fair share of war-time fiction, mostly written for Young Adults. The best of them pull you right inside the setting, and make you feel deeply for the characters as they navigate an impossible situation from the point of view of innocence. The Impossible Boy just doesn’t give me enough context, somehow. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that all that matters to Vincent is Benjamin: and Benjamin is only six, so all that matters is how the war applies to his life. And Agnew is certainly not writing for teens, so perhaps all that was missing was the grit that comes with an older readership.

Though I admit to these misgivings, I still consider Leonie Agnew to be a brilliant writer. She has firm control of her storyline, and the mixture of fear and intrigue that is guaranteed to pull her reader through the darker passages of the novel. I would recommend this for anybody who has needed an imaginary friend, and anybody who seeks to understand the impact that war has on innocent minds.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Impossible Boy
by Leonie Agnew
published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143309062

Book Review: Lily the Elf – The Sleepover, by Anna Branford

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lily_the_elf_the_sleepoverLily lives with her Dad in a tiny elf house, hidden under a bridge in a busy city. In the moss garden behind the house there is an even tinier house called a granny flat, home to Lily’s granny.

One morning Lily is playing a butterfly game in her room when Dad pops his head around the door. “I have some news for you” he says. “Aunty June and Uncle Tiddles are going to a concert tonight and they need someone to look after your cousin Fern. So I said she could stay with us.” “For a sleepover?” asks Lily.

The anticipation of a sleepover is one that a lot of us know about with small children – the excitement, the planning and of course the actual event. This is a lovely book which would be great for emerging young readers. It has simple text with clear illustrations giving the young reader an opportunity to form their own ideas of how an elf should be dressed and in what colours.

I read this book to 5-year-old Abby. She loved the story as she has a vivid imagination and actually has a fairy door in her room. She is slightly too young to read this series of books to herself. The book has simple sentence structure which meant that Abby did recognise a number of the simpler words. It won’t be long before she is reading books herself for pleasure. Abby packed this book into her overnight bag to take home before I had finished the review.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Lily the Elf – The Sleepover
by Anna Branford, illustrated by Lisa Coutts
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781925381146