Reviews: Two New Junior Fiction Titles

Sarah Forster reviews of two new junior fiction titles for kids pitched into that tricky junior / middle fiction reading divide. With child-friendly themes and page-turning storylines, both titles are easy to recommend.

Dear Professor Whale, by Megumi Iwasa, Illustrations by Jun Takabatake

Dear Professor Whale is a wonderful, profound book about loneliness and the joy of communication. It is an illustrated chapter book translated from the Japanese, and is a follow up to Dear Giraffe (Gecko Press).

Professor Whale is no longer teaching, and he’s struggling to find things to do, to bust out of his former persona as a teacher. He is whiling away his time dreaming of being able to fly, when he realises his flying friend Pelican is coming to visit – and he has a letter for Whale from Penguin. But where is his usual postie friend Seal? It seems Seal had dozens of letters to deliver, very far away, thanks to Professor Whale, who is trying to reconnect with old friends across the sea.

Professor Whale is no longer teaching, and he’s struggling to find things to do, to bust out of his former personaas a teacher.

Seal soon returns, with a letter from afar. It is from Wally, who is a blue whale, like the Professor – he lives at Otto Point. He mentions his grandfather, who used to live on Whale Point and who, as we discover in the second letter, used to come second in the Whale Olympics. It was Whale’s old friend Spout! Professor remembered him well.

Soon after this exchange, some old friends return to the point for a reunion, giving Professor an idea: he will organise the Whale Point Olympics for the next generation of whales, penguins and seals to gather and compete in.

The Whale Point Olympics at Dear Professor Whale

Thanks to Professor Whale’s idea, Whale Point becomes the place to be, with all the animals gathering for their races. But these don’t quite go as expected. The messenger seal looks so fast he couldn’t be beaten – but instead of beating his fellows, he doubles back and joins the last one to the finish line. The penguins stop to help their fallen professor. For a change, the Olympics aren’t about the best performance, but the kindest competitors.

‘Seal had kindly kept the slowest swimmer company the whole way. And that was how all ten seals made it across the finish line. Seal was beaming. He seemed very pleased with the results.’

‘Seal had kindly kept the slowest swimmer company the whole way. And that was how all ten seals made it acrossthe finish line…’

The illustrations, by Jun Takabatake, are pen and ink and very accessible for younger readers. The seals while swimming look like friendly rocks, while the penguins manage an astonishing range of expressions with their wing-arms. There are cute details to find as you linger on the pages.

My seven-year-old read this in about 45 minutes after I finished it, and his take was ‘it’s okay, but I’m not sure why just anyone could join the Olympics – isn’t it usually the top athletes? But I liked that it was about kindness.’

The writing throughout is clear and uncomplicated, though the book could have done with a bit more introduction of the main characters for those young readers who hadn’t read Dear Giraffe. The morals are clear but not so much so that it ruins your enjoyment of what is a very well-written story. More books like this are needed for this 5+ age group, I think, and with this series and the Dani (My Happy Life) series, Gecko Press does a great job of delivering them regularly.

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dear professor whale

By Megumi Iwasa

Illustrated by Jun Takabatake

Published by Gecko Press

RRP: $20.00

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Flying Furballs #5: Kit-napped, by Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press)

I have raved about this series several times before, so let it remain said – I think this is an excellent series for young readers who love cats, and planes, and the rivalry of CATS vs DOGZ.

A quick summary for the uninitiated though: we are on the cats’ side of WW2, which instead of being Allies v Germany is the afore-mentioned cats versus dogs. The boss of the dogs is Alf Alpha, otherwise known as The Furrer, and he has a cunning plan to bring down the cats for once and for all. To complete this plan – Project Sphinx – he has kit-napped (and dog-napped) all of the top inventors in the world – the narcoleptic C-four.

Their spies have information indicating that Egypt is where our inventor friend is being held – this calls for a trip to Cairo for our hero cats Claude D’Bonair and Syd Fishious. But they have to get their fast – luckily, Manx, the engineer cat, has something up her sleeves: a Vickers Vimy – the fastest plane ever flown (true fact, at that stage of the war.)

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Flying Furballs 5: Kit-napped spread

It appears that in this book, female characters have been given considerably more active roles by Bixley, which is fantastic to see. While mechanical genius Manx has been there from the start, one of the nurses is now training as a doctor, while a key character who is their insider in Egypt (and an expert in Egyptology) is one Professor Bertie Bell. Otherwise known as Liberty Bell – she helps them decode the heiroglyphics, then travels with them to the pyramids to defeat the DOGZ.

‘A dark shadow passed over Liberty’s face. DOGZ. I hate those mongrels.’

Getting caught in tombs, wrapped like mummies, and saving the world from flea bombs is all in a day’s work for our heroes. With plenty of Meow-zaki, Crikey Dingo and Ping Clang Ding, the action carries seamlessly into the style of the illustrations, with occasional break outs into full comic format.

Getting caught in tombs, wrapped like mummies, and saving the world from flea bombs is all in a day’s work for our heroes.

As always with Bixley, the book is saturated in laugh-out-loud puns and the illustrations are plentiful and work well to keep young readers engaged in the action, even when they aren’t entirely familiar with the setting. The expressions on the faces of the dogs and cats are pure Bixley fun, adding another layer of humour to the text.

The language is rich and lyrical, but not so complex that any meaning will be lost for younger readers. I’m going to continue recommending this series until it is done, to kids ages six and older.

Flying Furballs #5: Kit-napped

By Donovan Bixley

Published by Upstart Press

RRP $15.00

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Sarah Forster has worked in the New Zealand book industry for 15 years, in roles promoting Aotearoa’s best authors and books. She has a Diploma in Publishing from Whitireia Polytechnic, and a BA (Hons) in History and Philosophy from the University of Otago. She was born in Winton, grew up in Westport, and lives in Wellington. She was a judge of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2017. Her day job is as a Senior Communications Advisor—Content for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.