Book Review: Dawn Raid, by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith

Dawn Raid is a finalist in The Wright Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, in the NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. 

cv_dawn_raidAnother in the very good Scholastic series – My New Zealand Story, Dawn Raid is told from the perspective of 13 year old Sofia Savea, who lives in Cannon’s Creek, Porirua. Her story starts with the opening of the first McDonald’s in New Zealand. Sofia is typical of a lot of Kiwi children at that age – concerned with friendships and having enough money to buy her dream pair of white boots. She gets a milk run to help with buying clothes.

The book seeks to explain ‘Dawn Raids’ through the eyes of a typical Samoan family. At school Sofia uses school speeches to explain about her culture, then the impact of raids on the community. Mirroring this, Sofia’s family are personally touched by a raid, and experience great upset and confusion as a result. Multiple voices and perspectives are acknowledged. The support from the community after the raid – legal advice and the role of the Polynesian Panthers was interesting to learn about. The book further references Dame Whina Cooper’s long march to parliament, and David Lange’s legal help (this is of course prior to him entering politics).

I really liked how Sofia’s character developed over the course of the book, from a somewhat reserved person, to a student who confidently delivers a powerful speech on an issue close to her family.

This book is suitable for ages 10-15, and is a fictionalised account of an era in New Zealand characterised by a lot of political protest. As a resource to learn about racism, politics and how media bias can direct the wider conversation, it is very powerful book.

I’m so glad that this series is so wide ranging and has such a great range of writers behind it. Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith is an Invercargill-based writer, and this is her first book.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Dawn Raid
by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434757


Book Review: The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain, by Julie Lamb

Available in bookshops nationwide.

The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain is shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, and the Best First Book Award in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_the_discombobulated_life_of_summer_rain.jpgIt’s hard not to want to read a book which has “discombobulated” in its title, and thanks to Margaret Mahy it’s a word that many kids will be familiar with.

From the first paragraphs, I was hooked. Summer Rain is a feisty, funny character who has a particularly weird family. Her mother departed the family early in the piece, and with her dad not able to cope, Summer spends much of her school week with her grandfather, Pop – shrewd as a ferret and cunning as a weasel, but also a good mate to Summer, most of the time. His lifelong stinginess means he’s loaded, but you would not know this from the dilapidated farmhouse and the state of Dock’n’Thistle, his rundown farm.

Summer feels that she does not fit in well with her peers, is a bit embarrassed by her living conditions, and makes up for it by being a bit of a clown, which makes her popular with the boys, and viewed more cautiously by many of the girls.

The story is well-developed – a romance between Pop and a local serial marrier (I made that up, I can’t find the right word!) brings Summer tremendous angst and she works to bring this to an end.

How she does that would be a spoiler, but along the way the ideas of real friendship, family loyalty and individuality are well-explored. It’s a bit wacky – quite a bit, actually – but that adds to the charm. I did find my credibility a little bit stretched once or twice but I didn’t really find that mattered in the end.

Julie Lamb writes in an easy, flowing manner and there’s heaps of humour along with the magic. Oh, I did not mention magic before? Well, there is quite a lot, as it happens. But you’ll need to read this book to find out just what that magic does.

Highly recommended, likely to appeal to girls more than boys I think, and definitely worthy of its place in the Book Awards finalists.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain
by Julie Lamb
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994123701

Book Review: Helper and Helper, by Joy Cowley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Helper Helper is shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_hleper_and_helper.jpgI am almost ashamed to say that I had not read any Lizard and Snake stories before this collection. In my defence, my work was mostly with older teenagers, so I think I can be forgiven!

However, what quirky, credible characters these two are. A bit slippery, on the one hand, but good friends working mostly together. Sounds familiar? Joy Cowley has a very accomplished way of working a little morality, a lot of humanity and a great understanding of human behaviour into each story in this collection. There’s also much clever humour, and occasionally a small measure of sadness.

The fabulous illustrations by Gavin Bishop contribute a great deal to the book, picking up on small details and bringing the characters to life in a delightful way. The endpapers are particularly worth a look!

It’s a wonderful collection and brings to mind the gentle fables of Aesop. It also brought to my mind the less gentle Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc. I wonder if they are still popular, with their grim punishments for bad behaviour? I imagine that modern children will prefer Snake and Lizard.

It’s another great publication from Gecko Press, and I hope that there are more stories still to come from Joy Cowley about these unlikely best friends. Most deservedly a nominee for the NZ Children’s Book Awards.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Helper and Helper
by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571055

Book Review: The Singing Dolphin / Te Aihe i Waiata, by Mere Whaanga

Available in bookshops nationwide.
The Singing Dolphin / Te Aihe i Waiata, by Mere Whaanga is a finalist in this year’s Picture Book Award in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

cv_the_singing_dolphin.jpgInspired by Moko the Dolphin’s visit to Mahia over the seasons between 2007 and 2009, Mere Whaanga’s beautiful story The Singing Dolphin is a new tale told in the style of a traditional magical legend. Presented in te reo Maori and English, the story tells of Potiki, his brothers, and their wise woman Grandmother.

Reminiscent of Maui, Potitki has a sense of wonder and a touch of magic about him, while his brothers Tahi and Rua are expert in the more immediate workings of the land and sea. Their focus is set on their hunting and fishing, and they refuse to allow Potiki to help, telling him ‘No, you’re too little, you’re too noisy and you don’t know what to do.’ Determined to join them, Potiki follows and when he tires, rests and sings songs that draw the birds and eels.

His determination to join his brothers out at sea sees him hiding in their waka and in their anger at discovering him, they throw him overboard. Potiki’s song transforms him into a dolphin and the brothers return home, denying any knowledge of what happened to him. The birds and eels can’t tell Grandmother where he is either and it is a whale who tells her of a new dolphin that sings. In grief at what Tahi and Rua have done, she turns them to stone and sets them to guard the Pathway of Whales, where they must forever sing a song for Potiki to learn, one that will transform him once again into human form.

The lyrical text and rich illustrations draw you into the tale and invoke familiar legends and songs; so much so that in your head you can hear strong kuia calling, and stirring waiata mixing with sounds of the forest and shore. The purple and green watercolour landscapes and pencil sketch combination illustrations work well to enhance the mystical quality of the tale, and reinforces the strong and important connection of the people with the land and sea.

The mention of the land failing and the wetlands choking with weeds towards the end of the tale, acting as a cautionary note to look after the land and sea, slightly alters the flow of the narrative, if only for a beat, however the book remains a lovely addition to New Zealand’s treasure trove of unique stories and will be a welcome addition to many a bookshelf and classroom. It is a more than worthy finalist in the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults where it is a finalist in the Picture Book category.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Singing Dolphin / Te Aihe i Waiata
by Mere Whaanga
Scholastic NZ, 2017
ISBN 9781775434023


Sylvie the Second heads Into the River

cv_sylvie_the_secondThere is no getting around it, Sylvie the Second tackles teenage issues that would quickly become the scourge of the extreme right should it have the temerity to call itself a ‘children’s book’. While the ‘F’ and ‘C’ words are not used that I recall in the book – putting it at least a little below Ted Dawe’s Into the River in terms of the Family First agenda – there are other serious issues dealt with in the book –rape, self-harm and alcohol abuse for starters – which are relevant and important to the YA audience it was written for.

Sylvie the Second is our protagonist Sylvie’s name for herself: she always comes second. She feels invisible, and is having trouble figuring out where she fits in the newly teenage boy-crazed world she appears to have landed in. After a drastic change of image spurred by her sister “Calamity” Cate’s most recent suicide attempt, she suddenly gets noticed, but not all of this attention is healthy. One fateful night she goes to a party because a hot boy notices her: what happens there changes her life, seeing her turn to alcohol and self-harm to help with the pain.

cv_into_the_riverThe reality of teen life is there in all its nastiness (I was so grateful I was no longer a teenager), but this book is not as gritty as Into the River. The kids aren’t nicer, not at all, but it doesn’t feel as dangerous – perhaps because the adults are distracted & self-absorbed, rather than providing the tools of destruction. Sylvie the Second isn’t an entirely negative portrayal of teen life; the ending is overwhelmingly redemptive. Nevertheless, we wanted to ask Kaeli a few questions about her tightrope-walking book.

As Sylvie the Second went to print with newish publishers Makaro Press in September 2015, Family First had scored a new win, in appealing the Classification Office’s decision in August 2015 to remove the 14+ restriction with the New Zealand Film and Literature Board of Review, which lead to the interim banning of Into the River, the 2013 Margaret Mahy Children’s Book of the Year.

Did this make Kaeli a little nervous, I wondered – and what did she think of Into the River?
“I think it’s a brilliant book and it deals with a lot of relevant issues. I can understand the fears society has regarding teens reading about issues deemed to be “adult,” but in reality teenagers are also having sex, doing drugs, swearing like sailors etc. Obviously not all of them, but reading about it certainly isn’t going to destroy their innocence and it won’t make them have more sex or do more drugs or engage in more violent behaviours. Teens are known for pushing boundaries, so I think making those things a taboo subject is a dangerous game. ”

Since becoming a finalist for the Book Awards for Children & Young Adults (the YA was added back into the branding in 2014, after a 4-year break), it had crossed Kaeli’s mind that Sylvie the Second runs the risk of becoming a new drum for Family First to beat – but she stands by the fact that these topics are important and relevant. How is she so certain she is right? Kaeli, who goes by a pseudonym, works in youth mental health. Much like Ted Dawe, she sees and works with young people every day. She knows her audience well.

“We need to be able to be able to name these issues and give them some space, otherwise they’re more likely to erupt and consume us. Young people are bright and smart and like to think they have all the answers, but sometimes they make the wrong choices. When that happens they need adults in their life that they can come to at their most vulnerable, who they trust aren’t afraid of their darkness and can walk alongside them as they find their feet. Just being there and being brave enough to have difficult conversations is so important.

“As for any suggestion that Sylvie the Second could put the idea of self-harm / suicide / underage drinking into teenager’s heads: books are not responsible for people’s actions. Romeo and Juliet killed themselves because their parents didn’t understand them, and this has been taught in schools for centuries.”

Why we have to talk about these issues in YA books is neatly summed up in one line from the book. “I got the impression that adults tended to discuss everything but the difficult topics, as opposed to teenagers who focused only on the hard stuff.”

Sylvie the Second has some tough competition to win the YA category this year’s Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, but Kaeli herself is certainly a writer to watch, and she is a top contender to receive the Best First Book prize. This book is one to buy and keep, for adults to remind them what teenagers are like, and the tools they have to destroy each other; and for teens to remind them that everything is connected, and you will overcome.

by Sarah Forster

Sylvie the Second
by Kaeli Baker
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994106537


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: The Pirates and the Nightmaker, by James Norcliffe

Available in booksellers nationwide.

IPirates and the nightmaker_smln the mid-eighteenth century young Jeremy is signed up aboard the Firefly as a loblolly boy – a gruesome job aiding the ship’s doctor. However, his seafaring adventures turn even more disturbing when, after the Firefly is attacked by pirates, he finds himself set adrift with the remnants of the crew and the mysterious figure, Mr Wicker. To escape the murderous intentions of this unscrupulous band Jeremy, renamed Loblolly Boy, is transformed, made invisible by the curious talents of this latter character.

But is Mr Wicker acting in Loblolly Boy’s interests or his own? Caught by the seemingly eternal ties that now bind him to his new master, Loblolly Boy must engage in a dangerous game to discover who Mr Wicker really is and what drives this strange, enigmatic individual. With equal urgency, however, Loblolly Boy must also find a way to cross over from his liminal existence – unseen, unheard – back to his human self.

As Norcliffe himself confirms, The Pirates and the Nightmaker affords a backstory to the author’s Loblolly Boy concept – an intriguing characterisation first introduced in The Loblolly Boy. A finalist in this year’s The New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, The Pirates and the Nightmaker’s engaging blend of fact and fiction produces an absorbing quest that advances with serpent-like shifts. Enigmas, commotions and betrayals layer complexity and captivating drama as a tousled cast of characters jostle for supremacy on land and the high seas.

This title is a perplexing mystery adventure in which, with narrative precision, James Norcliffe evokes detailed imagery of the iconic battle between “light and darkness” in the pursuit of power. I highly recommend this book and will be watching its award’s journey with keen interest.

Reviewed by Kay Hall

The Pirates and the Nightmaker
by James Norcliffe
Published by Longacre
ISBN 9781775537694

Book Review: Under the Ocean: Explore and Discover New Zealand’s Sea Life, by Ned Barraud & Gillian Candler

Available in bookstores nationwide

cv_under_the_oceanUnder the Ocean is a beautifully-illustrated children’s reference guide to New Zealand’s oceans and the creatures found there. It is by the clever duo who also wrote and illustrated At the Beach and In the Garden.

Under the Ocean is split into sections which tell you about a certain area of the ocean, such as reefs or the deep ocean. The book then goes further and shows you the sort of sea life and plants that live in that habitat, with lots of detailed information.

This book is filled with loads of interesting facts about life under the sea and amazing realistic illustrations. Did you know that King Crabs can grow up to 1 metre and live up to 1.5 kilometres below the ocean’s surface? This book would be helpful to classrooms around the country, but would also make a useful guide for tourists.

I would recommend this book to teachers, and children aged 6+. This wonderful book is a 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

Under the Ocean: explore & discover New Zealand’s sea life
by Ned Barraud & Gillian Candler
Published by Craig Potton Publishers
ISBN 9781927213087

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