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Archive for the ‘Australian Children’s Literature’ Category

Book Review: Alfie’s Big Wish, by David Hardy

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 17, 2014

Alfie's Big WishAlfie’s Big Wish is a sequel to Alfie’s Search for Destiny which I reviewed on this blog last year.  It’s another title from Magabala Books, the indigenous not-for-profit publishing company based in Broome, Western Australia, and again the story is written in rhythmic rhyming couplets.

This time Alfie is in search of a friend.   This is a common theme in books for young children, and increasingly as families become more mobile and divorce is more common, the theme features a treasured friend moving away, leaving the other child bereft.

…his mates had moved on with their mum and their dad,
leaving him lonely, leaving him sad.

The other kids who are still around are older than he is  and the things he used to do with his friends are suddenly no fun anymore.  Appropriately in books for this age group the problem is reassuringly resolved when Alfie makes a wish upon a star and a little friend emerges from the bushes the next morning.

While this is a sweet little book for pre-school children, it has value for older students too.  As I explained in my previous review, David Hardy is an indigenous freelance artist descended from the Barkindji people of Brewarrina, NSW.  He worked for eight years with Walt Disney Studios in feature film animation, and has now come home to live in Sydney.  Hardy’s success in a high-profile international arena makes him a great role model for students of any background, but especially for indigenous students who are so often subjected to negative stereotypes of their people.

While he was with Disney, Hardy worked on The Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata, Tarzan II, Lilo and Stitch2 and Return to Neverland.  He was also ‘clean-up animation director’ in Manila, Philippines, where he worked on  The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning and The Fox and the Hound 2.  Older students will immediately identify the classic Disney facial expressions and gestures in the Alfie series of illustrations, while also identifying the symbols of indigenous identity such as the red and ochre head and arm bands; the boomerang; the face painting and the dancing.   The clever way that Hardy has adapted his ‘Disney’ style for the indigenous Australian context provides the opportunity to talk about career possibilities in animation and other forms of digital art.  I also use it to encourage students not to slavishly copy the pop art and Manga that they come across, but to adapt it and make it their own.

Author: David Hardy
Title: Alfie’s Big Wish
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781922142535
Source: Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books


Fishpond:  Alfie’s Big Wish
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Book review: Tea and Sugar Christmas, by Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 16, 2014

Tea and Sugar Christmas

Robert Ingpen was an inspired choice of illustrator for this delightful book, Tea and Sugar Christmas by Jane Jolly.  Awarded the Hans Christian Anderson in 1986 for his lasting contribution as a children’s book illustrator, Ingpen has transformed a simple Christmas story about outback life into a work of art that teachers will love to share with their students at any time of the year.

Teachers in metropolitan areas know that it’s not easy to convey a sense of the outback to urban children.  But the cunning design of this book does it well.  Each page of text is accompanied by a B&W drawing of the characters in the story, but it opens out to reveal a double page colour spread  of the landscape and of the train which brought goods and services to the remote Aussie outback until as recently as 1996.  And so we see little Kathleen holding an empty tin of tea on the first page, which then opens out to the muted colours of the small settlement where she lives, the town bisected by the all-important railway line.

As the illustration shows, if the family ran short they went without.  There was no shop, and no other source of goods and services than the ‘Tea and Sugar’ train.  It ran along the Nullarbor Plain between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie just once a week, its vans stocked with household goods, groceries, fruit, vegetables and meat.  People could do their banking, use medical and welfare services and catch up with news from elsewhere.  And once a year, there was a special Christmas train…

The text and the illustrations work well together to convey the sense of anticipation.  Kathleen – shown through the pictures to be the child of a mixed-race marriage –  is an active, independent child.  Barefooted, she climbs the hill-face at the back of the house and sits on a rocky outcrop staring into the distance across the vast plain.  When it arrives she is ecstatic:

Katherine slid down the hill and ran through the drowsy town.  She burst inside.

‘It’s coming! It’s coming!’ she shouted.

Dad looked up and his eyes danced a jog.

‘Now, what might be coming, girlio?’

‘You know, Dad.  Come on.  Let’s go.’

‘At last, more tea and sugar,’ said Mum, from the end of a paper chain.

Kathleen grabbed the wheelbarrow and started running with it.  Her feet pounded the hot track, searing like scones on a griddle.  She could hear the screeching of the train as it pulled into the siding.  As she ran, others emerged from their tin castles, cheering and calling out across the shimmering landscape.

The portrait of Kathleen when it’s her turn to see Father Christmas is stunning.  Just beautiful.

At the back of the book there are photos accompanied by historical information about the train, including the migrant men who worked on it after World War II, and the way that the people dressed up to meet it because it was the highlight of their week.  The endpapers are used to show a map of the route.

As a window onto a vanished lifestyle, Tea and Sugar Christmas is brilliant.

Author: Jane Jolly
Illustrated by Robert Ingpen
Title: Tea and Sugar Christmas
Publisher: NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia), 2014
Source: review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing

Fishpond: Tea and Sugar Christmas
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Book review: My Dog Doesn’t Like Me, by Elizabeth Fensham

Posted by Lisa Hill on August 31, 2014

Picture of My Dog Doesn't Like Me Could there be anything worse than the belief that not even your own dog likes you?

Elizabeth Fensham’s new book begins with nine-year-old Eric running away from home, egged on by his ‘horrible’ sister Gretchen.  Worse, when it doesn’t work out, he gets sent to his room for being rude to her like the victim is in prison and the bad guy is free. (p.6)  No one in the family is ‘on his side’ – not even the dog.

He seems to have made a number of mistakes with the dog, not the least of which is its name.  Provoked by Gretchen who’s ten years older than he is, he names it Ugly.  And because he doesn’t keep his promises about looking after it, the dog’s loyalty is to mum, who feeds him.  And she doesn’t take kindly to Eric’s experiments with using the new idioms he’s learned at school: the dog was Eric’s eighth birthday present but since the dog loves her instead of him, he calls her an Indian giver.   It’s not a pretty scene.

Fortunately he has two good friends at school.  Milly and Hugh try out their newly acquired research skills by designing a questionnaire to solve Eric’s problem.  They survey other children who come up with a heap of suggestions, but Eric – who, it must be said tends to give up easily – says he’s tried nearly all of them.   But he hasn’t…

‘Well, next is this idea of Emily’s about letting the dog smell your hand and acting gentle around it.’

I knew all about that.  Grandad had told me before we went to the Dog Shelter.  ‘That’s the right thing to do when you meet any dog,’ I said, ‘but after that first introduction, you have to live with your dog every day of its life.  The same goes for Skye’s idea.  Ugly likes being tickled and scratched, but you can’t keep doing that all day.’

Milly crossed off Emily and Skye’s ideas.

‘Dog toys?’ asked Hugh.

‘Ugly’s a spoilt brat,’ I said.  ‘He’s got masses of toys, but he gets bored with them and sneaks off and chews up things that belong to us, like my Parthenon project.’ (p.41)

One experiment appeals, but alas, it doesn’t work out.   The idea of giving the dog bones fails after one try because his mother is none too pleased about Eric carving the bone out of the Sunday roast before it’s been cooked, and Dad is none too pleased about Ugly destroying the vegie patch to bury the bone. The rest of his crazy experiments don’t work out too well either.

The humour derives partly from the narrative voice. The book is written entirely from Eric’s point of view, so although young readers can see that Ugly’s flaws are caused by Eric’s behaviour, Eric doesn’t see that at all.  His whiny self-justifications and blaming of others are funny because they’re authentic.

Meanwhile the dog is growing, and the time comes when there’s an ultimatum.  Either Eric takes responsibility for the dog and trains it properly, or it has to go.  The humour limps a bit as the ‘responsibility’ theme kicks in, but I still think that young readers will enjoy the book and its unexpected ending.

The cover art by Jo Hunt is just perfect.

Author: Elizabeth Henshaw
Title: My Dog Doesn’t Like Me
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2014
ISBN: 9780702250170
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.

Fishpond: My Dog Doesn’t Like Me
or direct from UQP.

PS Elizabeth Henshaw is also the author of Helicopter Man which won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year: Younger Readers (2006).   It’s not a book for younger readers, IMO, because it’s a harrowing book about a boy whose father suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and they are on the run from the father’s imaginary enemies.  But in the hands of a skilled teacher it is an excellent book for older readers and young adults to comprehend what life can be like when there is mental illness in the family.


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Book review: Jam for Nana, by Deborah Kelly

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 1, 2014

Jam for nanaAnother book about grandmothers!  This one is a charming complement to Damon Young’s light-hearted My Nanna Is A Ninja by (see my recent review) and is ideal for exploring the Foundation topic of families in the Australian History Curriculum:

ACHHK001 Who the people in their family are, where they were born and raised and how they are related to each other
  • identifying the different members of a family, (for example mother, father, caregiver, sister, brother, grandparent, aunty, uncle, cousin) and creating simple family trees with pictures or photographs (if possible using ICT) to show the relationship between family members
  • naming family members, finding out where they were born and raised and placing their photographs, drawings and names on a classroom world map

Part of exploring diversity for this age group  involves investigating family structures, and for many young children with both or solo parents at work, informal childcare with a grandmother becomes a highly significant relationship.  In Jam for Nana Deborah Kelly depicts a nana with nostalgia for apricot jam made in the old-fashioned way and her grand-daughter’s quest to find jam for her, with ‘the warmth of a hundred summers’.

(I myself can certainly relate to this nostalgia: store-bought jams and marmalades are generally flavourless, thin and runny, and almost fruit-free.  Busy as I am, I still make my own preserves, to a recipe, not a price).

The illustrations by Lisa Stewart are in soft pastel shades, but Nana is a stylish older woman in tunic and jeans, with a smart bob and a jaunty scarf around her neck.  She talks about jam ‘in the old country’ so she could be from anywhere, but it’s somewhere far away ‘across a great ocean’ which she had sailed as a little girl.

Nana’s memories – depicted in photo-frames – hint at a European mama feeding chickens but the jars of jam are labelled in English.  It’s a small quibble but I would have liked those labels to be as open-ended as the text is.  Pancakes, after all, are eaten all over the world, though of course they are made in different ways and have different names.  An imaginative teacher could easily make a multicultural PowerPoint to include a diversity of Australian children by using images from the different varieties on show at Wikipedia. 

That, I suspect, would lead naturally to a bit of cooking in the classroom, and perhaps that might even include making a small batch of real fruit jam?  There’s a very simple recipe – safely made in a microwave oven – at Taste.

Author: Deborah Kelly
Illustrator: Lisa Stewart
Title: Jam for Nana
Publisher: Random House Australia, 2014
ISBN: 9780857980014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House


Fishpond: Jam for Nana

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Book Review: The Anzac Puppy by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles

Posted by Lisa Hill on March 29, 2014

The ANZAC Puppy

As you will know if you read my previous post sharing my school’s plans for a coherent approach to the Anzac commemorations this centenary year, I came across a New Zealand picture book called The Anzac Puppy by Peter Millett.   I hadn’t seen it but thought it might be suitable as an alternative or supplement to Phil Cumming’s book, Anzac Biscuits which I’d chosen for Prep classes.  Peter contacted me, and very kindly sent me a copy of his book, which is now available in Australia from Wheeler’s Books.

Inspired by true events, The Anzac Puppy fictionalises the life of a Harlequin Great Dane called Freda, the mascot of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade that served in World War 1.   She was acquired by a Sergeant Ashby who probably named the dog after a young woman from a family that befriended the young soldier so far from home.  The dog survived the war, and thanks to a campaign led by a retired serviceman, her remains are commemorated by a headstone in Staffordshire, and her collar and the original headstone are in the Army Museum at Waiouru in New Zealand.

In Peter Millett’s hands, these events have become a love story, with a young soldier called Sam acquiring the dog from a girl called Lucy when her family couldn’t afford to keep it.  He takes the dog to the battlefront, and together they survive the war.  Sam keeps his promise to bring the dog back to Lucy safe and sound, and they fall in love and marry.  Their first child is named Freda.

Lofty's MissionIt is a charming story, yet authentic in tone.  We know that soldiers did smuggle pets of all kinds into the trenches and took comfort from having something to love and care for  – but I think I’d use it with older children.  While the text doesn’t labour the point, there are allusions to the earth rocking and shaking all around him with illustrations showing injured men; to rats that scuttled about through the trenches; to Sam and the dog sharing everything even their fleas;  and to Sam’s letters which never mention the horrible sights or the sounds that surrounded him.  The illustrations, vividly rendered by Trish Bowles, include a battlefield scene with explosions and a plane on fire, a burial scene, and a devastated battleground after the armistice.   These are not aspects of war with which to confront five-year-old children who’ve (in April) only been at school for a few short months.  The text would also be too difficult for some of our EAL children whose command of English is still rudimentary.  I don’t think I’d use it with children in Year 1 or 2 either.

However, I think it’s a very appropriate text to accompany the unit of work that I do with my Year 3 and 4 students, called Animals at War, using the DVA kit, M is for Mates.  There are (inevitably) plenty of picture books about Simpson and his Donkey that are available for this unit, and I also have one called Lofty’s Mission by Krista Bell and David Miller, but there are surprisingly few stories about the other animals awarded medals.  (There’s one called Sandy the Waler (a horse) which you can download as a pdf from the Army Museum but it’s not a proper picture book and it’s a bit long winded and not very engaging).  So The Anzac Puppy fills this gap nicely, and because the illustrations show the dangers faced by the dog, the book also enables the kind of gentle discussion I’ve had with these older students about the ethics of taking animals to war.   It’s also appropriate for Australian children to have an opportunity to learn about our Kiwi cousins’ contribution to the Anzac story.

To download our school’s Prep-Y6 plan for Anzac Day to use or adapt for your own school, click here.

You can find out more about Peter Millett at his website.

Author: Peter Millett
Illustrator: Trish Bowles
Title: The Anzac Puppy
Publisher: Scholastic New Zealand, 2014
ISBN: 9781775430971
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author, and kindly autographed by him which will impress the students at my school!

Fishpond (which delivers free in Australia and New Zealand) claim that it’s unavailable on their website, but I bet they’ll get copies in if there are enough enquiries! Try this link:  The ANZAC Puppy


Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Australian Curriculum, Australian History, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Book review: Here in the Garden, written and illustrated by Briony Stewart

Posted by Lisa Hill on March 26, 2014

Here in the GardenHere in the Garden is an enchanting new addition to picture books for young children coping with grief and loss.

The book begins in autumn, with the words

The wind rakes through the autumn leaves and I wish that you were here.

A little boy is sitting on a tree stump, watching the leaves swirl about him, and he is alone.  As we turn the pages we see that he lives in an ordinary suburban house with a backyard full of the usual things: a vegie patch, a tyre swing, a table and chairs on the patio, and fruit trees in tubs.  And there’s a rabbit, never mentioned by name, but ever present in this boy’s memories.

As the seasons change he remembers  different things. In the autumn they searched for leaves together, and chatted and hummed as they planted seedlings.  In the winter they watched the garden turn deep and dark and green. They splashed in the puddles and watched the plants push up through the ground.  When daffodils bloom in spring, he remembers tracing the clouds in the sky and searching the garden for mysteries such as cocoons, and in summer there’s the rabbit beside him as he sips a cool drink in the shade.  In these pictures the rabbit is his constant companion, but in the alternating pages he is alone, wishing that the rabbit were there with him.

As the year passes, the garden grows and changes,. and the boy comes to terms with his loss.

The garden’s growing and changing, and, when I wish that you were here…
I go outside and find you …
In the memories, in the garden, in my heart.

Poignant but not sentimental Here in the Garden is a perfect text to use with young children experiencing the loss of a pet.  At my school it will join a collection of texts that we use for the juniors in our Whole School Drug Education program where teaching about resilience is an important component.  Follow-up activities could include innovating on the text using the activities that children share with other pets such as cats and dogs.

You can find out more about Briony Stewart here.

Author: Briony Stewart
Title: Here in the Garden
Publisher: University of Queensland Press, 2014
ISBN: 978 0 7022 5010 1
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP


Fishpond: Here in the Garden
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Book review: Chasing Shadows by Corinne Fenton

Posted by Lisa Hill on March 16, 2014

Chasing ShadowsChasing Shadows, by Corinne Fenton and illustrated by Hannah Sommerville, is a wise and gentle book about grief.  Beth has lost her mother, an event signalled by photos of a family of three, which is now just a family of two, Beth and her father.  At Christmas, signalled only by the wreath on the front door, Dad brings home a dear little puppy called Patches, but it’s too soon for Beth.  What she feels is more than grief, it is depression, and she has lost interest in everything, clinging to her mother’s beads and lying awake at night watching the shadows.

Patches, as puppies do, frolics, explores, makes a muddy mess and seems to comfort dad as he walks alone outside.  The weather changes, showing the passage of months, and it is not until the weather warms again and Patches is bitten by a snake that Beth is able to care about him at all.  She spends an anxious night beside him after the vet has been, but in the morning wakes to his love as he clambers up on to the couch to share a cuddle.  Beth weeps, but her tears turn to smiles and laughter, and the last page is a triumphant celebration of her father’s relief as he works in the garden beside the child and the dog at play.

Corinne Fenton is an award-winning author, but her partnership with first-time illustrator Hannah Somerville is what makes this book so powerful.  Fenton’s text is transformed by the images: little Beth’s empty face contrasted with the exuberant pup; father’s own grief exacerbated by his anxiety about his child; the precious moment when Beth sees beyond her own needs and shrieks for help to dad.

Many of the books that attempt to express grief and depression in young children are, to my mind, sentimental and too quick to imply a swift resolution.  Chasing Shadows makes no pretence about that: it shows that incapacitating grief can linger for a very long time.

Highly recommended.

Author: Corinne Fenton
Illustrator: Hannah Somerville
Title: Chasing Shadows
Publisher: Ford Street Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000146
Source: Review copy courtesy of Ford St Publishing.


Fishpond:Chasing Shadows
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Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Book Review: My Nanna is a Ninja, by Damon Young

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 26, 2014

My Nanna is a Ninja
I think I may have mentioned before that I’m writing up some poetry units for the Australian Curriculum?  I am beginning to doubt that they will ever be finished, because as fast as I finalise a lesson on the units I’ve done, somebody produces another gorgeous book and of course I have to use it, and so my unit is out of date five minutes after I’ve planned it.

So it is with this fabulous book from Damon Young: My Nanna is a Ninja is hilarious – I can’t wait to use it with my Year 4 poetry class.

Some nannas dress in blue while they bake sweet apple pies.
Some nannas dress in red as they fly about the skies.
Some nannas dress in pink while they jog around the track.
But my nanna is a ninja so she dresses up in black.

(You can download the sample pages that these couplets come from on the UQP site so that you can see the wonderful illustrations by Peter Carnavas.  There are teachers’ notes there too. )

These four nannas defy stereotypes: they are young, or young-at-heart, they are all active and they all express their love for their grandchildren in different ways. The illustrations work with the text to show us a grandma ballooning, riding on wild horses, and otherwise living life to the full.  The ninja grandma sneaks out for midnight feasts, and uses a ninja sword as a satay stick for eating watermelon.

I’m going to use this book to explore rhythm and rhyme, but I don’t think we’ll try to emulate it in our own poems.  Too hard!  We’ll talk about other forms of poetry that we could use to write about grandmothers so that we focus on meaning.  We could try acrostics, maybe haiku, or free verse: the important thing will be to capture the mood of individuality that modern grandmas have, and the special relationship that they have with their grandchildren.

Sometimes, the creativity of Australian picture book authors and illustrators makes a teacher-librarian’s job a real delight …

Author: Damon Young
Title: My Nanna is a Ninja
Illustrated by Peter Carnavas
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2014
ISBN: 9780702250095
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.


Fishpond: My Nanna Is A Ninja
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Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Poetry, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Book review: Night Monsters, by Nina Poulos

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 16, 2014

Night MonstersNight Monsters is another of the NLA’s picture books which can be used to teach young children about Australian animals.

Written in rhyming couplets – which also makes the book useful for teaching the Literature component of the Australian Curriculum for English – the story confronts the fears that children have about monsters in the night.  The animals of the bush are scared too, and so Cackle Kookaburra gathers them together so that they can admit their fears and find out what’s causing them:

Cackle Kookaburra sat in a tree
She was glad it was finally light.
For friends had told this wise old bird
Of monsters in the night.

So Cackle called her friends around,
She thought it would be best
To share their tales and find the truth
And put their fears to rest.

Waddle Wombat hears a witch making her teeth go ‘clack’; Rowdy Roo hears hissing; Ernest Echidna is sure that there’s a dinosaur snarling; and Doris Dingo hears growling and grunting that she thinks is a bear (which most Australian children will know couldn’t possibly be, in the Australian bush).  Wallis Wallaby is worried about the beat of a dragon’s wings; Paddle Platypus thinks that a goblin is snoring; and Prunella Possum says she’s seen a giant roaring.  But Cackle Kookaburra knows what’s causing all these spooky noises – it’s Larry Lyrebird, a remarkable mimic!

All’s well that ends well, and the last page of the book features facts about the lyrebird, complete with some images from the NLA’s collection, some of them very early ones from the 18th century.  The rest of the pictures are bright and lively full colour illustrations by Cheryl Westenberg, who also illustrated What’s Dad Doing? which is a very popular book in our school library. (See my review).

The book is produced on high quality paper, with a cover that is more robust and durable than most paperbacks, giving it a longer shelf-life in a school library.

Author: Nina Poulos
Title: Night Monsters
Illustrated by Cheryl Westenberg
Publisher: National Library of Australia (NLA), 2013
ISBN: 9780642278333
Source: review copy courtesy of the NLA

Fishpond: Night Monsters
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Essential reading: What makes a picture book a classic?

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 18, 2014

The Art of Children’s Literature: What makes a picture book a classic by Lisa Clausen at The Monthly is essential reading for teachers, teacher-librarians, parents and anybody who cares about books and reading:

Anyone who has ever loved a picture book knows how much they matter. They make sense of the world, even as they rearrange it with flying beds and tigers at the dinner table. They feed a child’s imagination. They delight and scare and comfort. They create readers. And some, because of the worlds they bring into being, or by an alchemy of voice and story, lodge in a child’s memory so deeply that they never really leave.

To read the rest of this article, visit The Monthly.

Thanks to @OzKidsYALit for the link.


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