Rachel Moore reviews three world-class Kiwi series for readers from around the age of seven: Miniwings by Sally Sutton, Flying Furballs by Donovan Bixley and The Dragon Defenders by James Russell. Make a note of these for any upcoming nieces’ or nephews’ birthdays!
This new series from Scholastic hooks into an idea that I’m sure most children have had at some point (I know I certainly did): What if your toys came to life? That’s the premise for the Miniwings stories, aimed at readers from age seven up (although I think younger readers would enjoy them as a read-to).
Sisters Sophia and Clara have been given six toy ponies with wings by their Nana. Only … they’re not really toys, unless adults are around. They’re busy, noisy and downright naughty mini-ponies who can’t be trusted not to get into trouble when they’re left unsupervised – and their trouble-making potential is pretty high even when Sophia and Clara are around. Their antics get the sisters into all sorts of hot water, and result in the girls having to think fast to get themselves out of trouble.
The plots are lively and funny and not overly ‘girly’, and the girls are generally able to get one over on the significant adults in their lives – a guaranteed kid-pleaser. The Miniwings have their own language, with a helpful glossary at the back. I can imagine kids loving this – new words for poo and bogies are always welcome – and I can equally imagine it getting on my nerves if kids in my class started bringing some of the vocabulary to school. It’s not a criticism, as I’m not the target audience, and I know kids will love having a new set of secret vocabulary to play with.
Hats off to Scholastic for embracing some high production values; I’m reminded of the Princess in Black series from Candlewick Press which I’m a big fan of (and enthusiastic readers of one series will probably like the other). The Miniwings covers are sparkly, the pages are of thick, quality paper, and the gorgeous and expressive illustrations by Kirsten Richards are in full colour. There are little annotations over the pages like a diary. A lot of care has been taken with these books, which is great. The books start with a top-secret message from Sophia, the narrator, setting the scene, and then a descriptive cast of characters. Every page is illustrated, and with fewer than 100 pages of text, this ensures that readers starting out on chapter books won’t be daunted.
Highly recommended for readers who have a great sense of imagination and humour.
Readers of New Zealand children’s books are likely to be familiar with Donovan Bixley. He is a prolific author and illustrator, but until I crossed paths with Flying Furballs #3: Unmasked, I hadn’t realised that Bixley was creating junior fiction alongside his many beloved picture books.
Unmasked is the third in a series of junior chapter books that are set in war-torn Europe – but not war-torn Europe as you know it. In 1917, the war is between freedom loving CATs (Cat Allied Troops) and evil, canine-supremacist group DOGZ, who control the Dog Obedience Governed Zone. Our heroes are Claude D’Bonair, a CAT pilot, and the CAT chief engineer Manx. Claude D’Bonair is on the trail of a secret blueprint for a new airplane, but due to some bad luck and the cunning of a DOGZ agent, he ends up with half the prize. He and Manx are sent to Venice, still a free city where cats and dogs live in harmony, to try to get the rest of the blueprints and improve CAT’s chances of winning the war.
Like a good PIXAR movie, Unmasked works on both child and adult levels. It has more puns than a dad-joke convention – and I suspect a lot of them will go straight over the top of kids’ heads, but will give adults a chuckle. The story references both World War I and II histories – the fascist DOGZ are very much reminiscent of the NAZI party with their pedigrees-are-superior philosophy, while the planes and character costuming remind me of the Great War. I also wondered if I noticed nods to James Bond, Biggles and the 2001 Cats & Dogs movie. So that’s adult readers taken care of.
For children, the pace is cracking, and the plot arc isn’t resolved until very near the end of the book, building the tension in an exciting but not too scary way for younger readers. There are Bixley’s fabulous illustrations on every double page, including an illustrated cast of characters and annotated maps and plans, so the amount of text is not overwhelming. The maps and plans are a real highlight of the book – this is the sort of stuff I adored in books as a child, and still do, if I’m honest. It helps to make sense of the action. There is also an opportunity for the female character to shine and problem-solve, rather than being a decorative add-on.
This would be a great read-aloud/read-together book when introducing young school-aged readers to early chapter books, but it will also be accessible to independent six- to eight-year-olds exploring chapter books on their own. I can see this also being a successful way to engage reluctant readers, as the illustrations provide a great hook into the text. Highly recommended – and I’m going to ask my school librarian to purchase the set.
Flynn and Paddy live the sort of life that is probably barely imaginable to modern city kids. They live on a remote island with their parents, and spend their days exploring, hunting and fishing. They were the main characters in Russell’s Dragon Brothers trilogy of picture books. The Dragon Defenders: Book One picks up the action three years later, when the dragons appear to have left the island.
Modern life is making an unwelcome intrusion into island life. Planes have been flying low over the island, and now a boat has turned up, anchored just off shore. Paddy and Flynn decide to investigate, and begin to uncover pieces of a nefarious plot by villain The Pitbull.
Modern life might be unwelcome on the island, but it’s a key feature of The Dragon Defenders: Book One. The book comes to life with the aid of augmented reality – familiar to users of the ‘Pokemon Go’ and ‘Magical Parks’ apps. By downloading the free ‘AR Reads’ app, readers can access five pieces of animation or video that bring the story further to life. It’s an interesting addition to the story (but not essential – the book can be read successfully without the app) that will doubtless appeal to today’s device-savvy young readers. It may even be the thing to tempt a reluctant reader into picking up the book, and the storyline will be enough to keep them engaged. Five pieces of augmented content is about right – less would take the shine of the novelty off, and more would feel like an intrusion.
Flynn and Paddy are great heroes – they’re resilient, inventive and self-sufficient. They’re tough, keep going even when things are stacked against them, and, most importantly, they’re believable. They’re not perfect, and have the odd niggle with each other, as siblings usually do. They’re trusted by their parents and grandparents, and able to outsmart the bad guys. The story moves along at a good pace, with obstacles to be constantly overcome in order to foil The Pitbull’s evil plans.
The book is written with seven- to twelve-year-olds in mind, and is well-pitched. Sensitive younger readers might need the support of an adult to cope as the tension builds, and the book would work well as a read-to or read-together, as well as an independent chapter book. Readers don’t need to have read the picture books first – this works well as a stand-alone story. I’m looking forward to the publication of the next book in the series.
The Dragon Defenders: Book #1
By James Russell
Animations by Yongtao Zhang
Published by Dragon Brothers
Rachel Moore is a experienced primary school teacher who lives on the Kapiti Coast. Some of her earliest memories are of bed time stories read with her dad, and she has made it her mission to try to pass on her love of books to every child she meets. Her childhood literary heroes are Jo March, Lucy Pevensie, Matilda Wormwood and Elizabeth Bennet. When she grows up, Rachel hopes she'll be able to live in a house big enough for all her books.