Book Review: We’re All Wonders, by R. J. Palacio

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_wereallwonders.jpgThis is a beautiful reflection on difference and how we react. While as a Mum, I wanted my three children to be curious and ask questions, I always struggled with the loudly voiced,’ Why does that girl have…?’.

This simple but clear picture book gives the perspective from the inside. The opening statement declares, ‘I know I’m not an ordinary kid.’ The story follows the everyday actions which all children enjoy, but being stared at, left out and bullied becomes the norm.

R J Palacio wrote the novel Wonder from this perspective and has followed it with a number of related tales. Here we have a simplified version of Wonder, where the message is easy for all to follow. I can see this book being a useful starter in classrooms at all levels. My Year 11 class engaged in a robust discussion about appearance and pressure to conform. As a parent and grandparent this is a treasure to share.

The final statement is a heartfelt message for child and adult: ‘I know I can’t change the way I look BUT maybe, just maybe, people can change the way they see…’

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

We’re All Wonders
by R. J. Palacio
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780141386416

Frankie Potts #3 and #4, by Juliet Jacka, illustrated by Phoebe Morris

If you haven’t read the Frankie Potts series yet, then you’re definitely missing out. 7-10 year olds I’m talking to you. Funny, awkward, sometimes challenging and always a bit batty. Wellington writer Juliet Jacka knows how to engage her audience – and more importantly, she does it with a local flavour.

Frankie Potts & the Postcard Puzzle 
cv_frankie_potts_and_the_postcard_puzzleThis is part three in this mystery and detective series. Frankie Potts has red hair, a super dog called Sparkplug and a mate called Mac. They love mysteries. And with a family like Frankie has there is always a mystery.

The family has hidden secrets. So, when Frankie finds a postcard sent to her mother saying “dearest Tania I do think we should give it another try, don’t you? Gideon xxx” Frankie’s methodical brain goes into over drive. What could all this be? A long lost lover? Does Father know? To solve the mystery Frankie and her gang jump on the bus to Giggleswick to search for Gideon.

What they find is going to unleash a horde of family secrets. All is revealed at a family dinner with the Marvellous M, Frankie’s Grandma and her menagerie of animals which includes a parrot called Firefly who says “Potamus-otamus-hippo-whatamus”.

Frankie Potts & The Wicked Wolves
cv_frankie_potts_and_the_wicked_wolvesThis is part 4 of the series. Frankie has found her long-lost grandad, Sparkplug’s girlfriend Tinkerbell has just had 7 puppies, her grandmother the wonderful The Marvellous M has entered a competition with her dogs, and Frankie’s mother is expecting twins. On top of that, blue-faced dancers the Wicked Wolves have come to the village of Tring.

Initially, it’s all very exciting but Frankie can smell a rat. Something’s not right. There’s a mystery afoot. Who are these Wicked Wolves? How come Marvellous knows them? Why does she want to fight them?

In the meanwhile, there’s puppy chaos at Frankie’s house and Grandma M is planning to give half of them away. Frankie must make sure that they go to good homes. She’s not happy about this at all.

To add to this, Ralph Peter-McGee, Frankie’s arch-enemy, has his eye on her favourite pup Kettle Thomson. Can Frankie stop Ralph getting the pup? And why are those Wicked Wolves sniffing around the puppies? Set against all this is the inaugural Tring Talent Contest. The show is rapidly approaching, and Frankie has some serious detecting to do. But maybe not all the clues are quite as they seem …


My own 8-year-old loves these gentle mysteries. She found the writing easy and simple to follow and the story engaging enough to stay up and read the whole thing in a single Friday night. Mixed with Phoebe Morris’ clever and quirky black and white drawings, some including paws across empty pages, she was quietly giggling away to herself at times.

Moreover, the story was memorable. There are hints of the old-fashioned English children’s books like Famous Five here. Children have some freedom to roam and think for themselves. There are no mobile phones or iPads or any other modern trappings, unless they are essential for the plot.

But to my daughter, the gentle uncluttered plots and strong, likable characters were the real appeal. Frankie has flaming red hair and an insatiable appetite for solving mysteries. Plot-wise they are bizarre enough to intrigue and simple enough to remember. My daughter had no trouble reciting the whole thing back to me on the walk to school. A winner, at least in our household.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Frankie Potts & the Postcard Puzzle
by Juliet Jacka and Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770206

Frankie Potts & The Wicked Wolves
by Juliet Jacka and Phoebe Morris
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770459

Book Review: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

cv_see_you_in_the_cosmosAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This book centres on Alex, an 11 year old (but “13 in responsibility years”) who is fascinated by rockets and life on other planets. His mission is to launch his own rocket complete with his iPod on which he has recorded his comments about life on earth and what it’s really like for him.

It’s fair to say that Alex is not your average 11 year old: his dad is dead, his mum has a raft of issues of her own, and his older brother does not even live in the same town, so Alex is pretty much left to his own devices.  He is very resourceful, and very responsible. He sets out, without permission, because his mom is having one of her “days when she stays in bed and does not respond, to go to the South West High Altitude Rocket Festival taking along his dog Carl Sagan – named for his hero – and his rocket. This is where it turns into a road trip – and what a trip – there’s a zillion twists and turns and potential disasters and that’s before he even  gets to the festival.

It’s on the whole strangely credible, even if at the same time quite unlikely, and it gives the reader a great deal to ponder on about resilience, bravery and the importance of family. It helps that all the total strangers Alex meets up with are helpful, responsible and willing to take him as he is, which is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum. I don’t think that is particularly realistic but it does keep the momentum up. Faced with all the challenges which Alex encounters, most of us would give up and find a quick way home, but it’s part of the delight of this book that he doesn’t. It also shows an awareness on the author’s part of the challenges posed to, and by, kids on the “spectrum”, and the single mindedness which so often accompanies this.

I think it is an excellent story. It’s well-constructed, funny and sad sometimes at the same time, and Alex and the rest of the main characters (who cover a very wide range of the odd and the particularly peculiar, all good-hearted as can be) are quite credible.

Highly recommended for those who loved “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Wonder”, but also for anyone who loves a story where challenges are confronted,  analysed and resolved through good will and compassion.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

See You in the Cosmos
Jack Cheng
Published by Puffin
ISBN: 9780141365602

Book Review: The Severed Land, by Maurice Gee

Available now at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_severed_landIn a welcome return to writing fiction intended primarily for younger readers, Maurice Gee has definitely pulled it off. This is an excellent book.

It’s set in a time where,as in many dystopian novels, there has been a breakdown of civilisation. However, I hesitate to label it as dystopian fiction, as there is greater depth and more hope than in many books of that genre.

So instead, I will call it an adventure. It brings to mind the Salt trilogy, which was such an excellent series, but it’s not at all the same. It also made me think about The Chimes, although again there are not really similarities – I think that it’s about the feeling these books create in the reader which makes them feel somewhat familiar.

But what an adventure: power, thievery, slavery, acts of immense courage and bravado, and a definite nod to an underworld of violence and cruelty. It’s all managed brilliantly.

The main character, Fliss, is an escaped slave who lives in a part of the country Galb which is separated from the rest by an invisible – and generally unbreachable – wall. On her side of the wall there used to be The People who were instrumental in creating and holding the wall, but only one, the Old One, remains. His urgent need is to find and bring through another who has the ability to hold the wall together even if only for a while.

Fliss is a remarkably-drawn character. She is gutsy, determined, brave, and sure of herself. A good role model, one might say, except for the knife which she can use when necessary! One could fantasize that, put in a similar situation, one would be brave enough to use that knife.

The other main character is Kirt/Keef, who was once a member of one of the ruling families in Galb. His circumstances changed dramatically and at the start of the book he tries to escape and but for Fliss, would have been killed. I don’t want to give away the whole plot, so if you want to find out you’ll have to read this for yourself!

But I will just say – who is the Nightingale? Can she be saved? Will the wall hold up for long enough?

It goes without saying really that this is well-written – I honestly don’t think Maurice Gee could write a bad sentence if he tried – and the characters spring from the pages.
It also goes without saying that it may have been aimed at younger readers, but that like any really good book, its audience is in fact anyone who loves a great story. Of course it’s not as complex as it might have been were it written with an adult readership in mind, but sometimes less is more!

And while the story is complete, it’s possible there could be more – I guess we’ll just have to hope.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Severed Land
by Maurice Gee
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770244

Book Review: A is for Aotearoa, by Diane Newcombe and Melissa Anderson Scott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_is_for_aotearoaThis lift-the-flap treasure hunt book is sure to appeal to children, as it is incredibly interactive.

The story starts with a message in a bottle washed up on a beach. This leads Girl and Bird on an alphabet treasure hunt around New Zealand. There is a trail of clues that lead them from place to place, from city to shore, north to south and east to west.

Some of the locations will be familiar but for those that aren’t, there is a glossary at the back with facts about each location.

The book starts with A for Auckland and Girl jumps on Bird’s back to fly to the next location. The pages open to feature lift-up flaps on a background that is jam-packed with illustrations, ranging from a tuatara to a steam train.

While the book is filled with detailed illustrations,  I found the colour on some pages to be a little muted. Perhaps a little more colour next time!

For those too young to pick up on the place name clues, the book could be used to help them recognise and name other items. Subsequent readings will increase older children’s recall of the place names and I imagine they would soon be able to name many of the places the book takes them to.

A great adventure for parents and children to take together.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

A is for Aotearoa
by Diane Newcombe and Melissa Anderson Scott
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143507307

Book Review: Maui and other Maori Legends: 8 Classic Tales of Aotearoa, by Peter Gossage

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_maui_and_other_maori_legendsThis bind-up collects eight classic Maori myths, the original picture books of which form some of my most visual memories from when I was a child. Six of the books that are reproduced here were published between 1975 and 1985, with the others from the early 2000’s. I remember clearly, sitting on the floor of the library at St Brigid’s Primary School, poring over these potent celebrations of Maori mythology, spellbound by the swirling style of the art within.

The first six of these stories are based on the mythology of Maui, arguably our most famous cultural ancestor. Many wonderful authors and illustrators have ensured our Maori mythology has endured, but Gossage’s bold, colourful art is the real joy of this collection, while his lyrical tellings are a pleasure to read aloud.

But Maui was still alive!
The wave children of Tangaroa and Hine-moana bore him on their backs.
The clouds shielded him from the fierce sun,
and Tawhiri the wind cooled him.

This collection is published beautifully by Penguin, and the handy bookmark ribbon has been a source of entertainment to my son Dan, who has happily started reading it to himself, making sure to keep his place with the ribbon provided.

My family is Pakeha, and my children’s main access to Maori myth is in essential books like this. It is a joy to re-read these old favourites and share them with my children. Please make sure you have this book in your library; it is still relevant and important.

Maui and other Maori Legends: 8 Classic Tales of Aotearoa
by Peter Gossage
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143309291

Having a baby? You’ll need (kiwi) books!

By books, I don’t mean books telling you what to do when you have a baby, though a couple of them might be a good idea early on in the pregnancy. Really, don’t look at them later though as it’s a sure way to convince yourself you’ll never be good at this parenting gig. I’m not going to suggest titles of pregnancy/ parenthood books, but Kaz Cooke is amazing and I keep seeing stuff around about Constance Hall’s Like a Queen, and um did you know Emily Writes has a book coming? Anyway.

What is really important, is starting your new bump’s very own library. Your first stop is going to be school fairs – think Spot, Dr Seuss, the eponymous Golden Books. And make sure you have plenty of board books – not only are they tear-proof for destructive-minded toddlers, but they are easier to hold with one hand while breastfeeding. And your second stop – bookshops, of course. Perhaps for Bookshop Day this Saturday 29 October?

All of these essential first kiwi books are available in board book format.

cv_the_noisy_book1. The Noisy Book, by Soledad Bravi (Gecko Press)
Nothing beats it. My boys have destroyed two copies of this – the only notable change in the second edition being a PC-ism of Spinach – it was just ‘Yuk’ now it goes ‘Yuk Yum’. Possibly for the American market?
2. Hairy Maclary Touch & Feel, by Lynley Dodd (Puffin)
Your baby will love touch & feel books, and be disappointed with any books that don’t have this function, right until they are around 2.5 years old. This is a favourite, with lots of fuzzy, soft and velvety dog fur.
3. ABC, 123 and Colours, by James Brown and Frances Samuel (Te Papa Press)cv_my_NZ_ABC_book
These books are gorgeous and genuinely inventive. A may be for Apples, but they are big, shiny Billy Apples – we get relevant letter-meanings, gorgeous countables and the most wonderful artwork in Colours. Just brilliant.
4. Duck’s Stuck, by Kyle Mewburn and Ali Teo (Scholastic NZ)
So you don’t believe that a tiny baby discovers their literary taste literally on the boob? Think again! This book was my bedside book while I fed my little baby to sleep, and is still now a fallback when every other book is rejected. Thank you, Kyle – this is a gift he gave me when still pregnant with number 1, and it’s still going strong.
construction_crew5. Roadworks, Demolition and Construction, by Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock (Walker Books) – available now in a box set.
These are must-haves for the machine-mad child. This was so popular with my older boy when he was 2 there were thoughts of “losing” it for awhile…
6. The Wheels on the Bus (Hachette), The Great Kiwi ABC Book (Upstart Press) and Old McDonald Had a Farm (Hachette), by Donovan Bixley
Okay, you may think once you’ve seen one version of these classics you’ve seen them all, but Bixley’s richly detailed, characterful illustrations make sure this isn’t the case with these books.
cv_the_big_book_of_words_and_pictures7. My Big Book of Words and Pictures, by Ole Konnecke (Gecko Press)
My first child, age 2, insisted that we made up stories based on the pictures on each of the pages of this book. Every Single Night. It was wonderful, most of the time. But seriously, this is a top-of-the-line word learning book, with a bit of a story on each page to help the tired parent’s mind. This could, admittedly, be a first birthday present.
8. Stomp! By Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)
Ruth Paul’s Stomp! is a great first dinosaur adventure, where small turns the tables on big when it’s their turn to lead the pack. Subtle, effective illustrations make sure there’s something to discover on every re-read. And there will be plenty.
9. Piggity-Wiggity Jiggity-Jig, by Diana Neild, illustrated by Phillip Webb (Scholastic NZ)
One of the best rhythmic books out there, this is the first in a series about Piggity, with the slightly awkward name. A huge favourite with no 1 kid, it didn’t really work for no 2, and fair warning it is a little long when you have a small baby; maybe one to jiggle the cot to for a night-time read.cv_kakahu_getting_dressed
10. Kākahu – Getting Dressed; Kararehe – Animals; and Kanohi – My Face, by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson (Reo Pepi)
Essential first Te Reo titles, teaching the very young some essential first words in Te Reo to begin their understanding of New Zealand’s own language.
11. Colours, and Animals, by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)
A similar concept as above, including Te Reo first words, with Bixley’s usual cast of animated characters, which will be familiar to anybody who has read his Old McDonald’s Farm or Wheels on the Bus stories.
12. Mrs Wishy-Washy, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Elizabeth Fuller
Mrs Wishy-Washy is an enduring favourite for my youngest boy, though I will admit that sometimes when he has nightmares they appear to include Wishy-Washy and Grandma (possibly related to that one time we left him to go to sleep with Grandma: the trauma!) The words trip off the tongue, and you’ll have it memorised in no time. Joy Cowley is a national treasure.

Now, a disclaimer that will be familiar to anybody who has had the pleasure of being at The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie when John McIntyre hosts a parents night. Before you buy your library, go to the library – with your child, if they are already born! Every child is different – my boys have very few of their preferred books in common – but all of these books are quality. Writing, production & everything: brilliant.

So here’s the sell: It’s NZ Bookshop Day on 29 October: what better chance to go out and get your little ones some quality kiwi (and translated, in the case of the Gecko Press) books! Most of the bookshops participating will be giving out books to kids who come in-store dressed up, and there are children’s authors popping up in bookshops all over New Zealand. Here’s the event calendar, so get your skates on!

by Sarah Forster