Book Reviews: New Junior Fiction from Aotearoa

Winter has finally come to Aotearoa, and it’s brought with it a fresh batch of junior fiction titles! Here’s librarian Dave Tucker’s takes on four recent releases, including a sports read for reluctant readers, a spooky adventure story, a relatable tale of perseverance, and a hilariously relevant read about slime! Will you be adding these to your shelves?

Cricket Crazy by Vivienne Bailey (AHOY!/The Cuba Press)

Cricket Crazy’, is a smart hitter for all those relaxed and reluctant readers out there.

Tom Willard is a young boy aged 11, fairly shy and just ok at sport, with big plans of playing his favourite game, cricket, at the fabled Basin Reserve, his absolute ‘field of dreams’. All his sporting goals are carefully considered and seemingly achievable, making his everyday experience of schoolyard bullies and too much homework tolerable. With overbearing teachers with funny names like Snotty Potty (his micro-mismanaging maths tutor), and larger than life, bike shed bully Menace Mitchell, Tom’s timetable feels troublesome, tiresome, and totally overrated.

But just when things appear to be looking up, his dad makes a new lady friend called Tanya, a flash-boot-wearing threat to his previously comfortable family dynamic.

This proves way too much for this budding batsman, taking Tom, a self-absorbed tween to brand new depths of dreary pre-adult acceptance, with all the trimmings of broody book-shunning boyishness.

Packing in all the contents of every young guy’s personal gear bag, this story of sport and school triumphs serves up totally relatable characters alongside everyday ‘real life’ challenges, such as losing mum from the sidelines and stomaching sharing the newly polished table with a strangely perfumed impostor.

The challenge of dealing with a broken home while building new dreams provides Tom with all the motivation he needs to excel on the sports field, whilst escaping from his ongoing academic torment.

Tom’s best mate Fletcher and other lads are with Tom throughout his real-life innings, egging their on-field friend to push through his poor bowling and at-home distractions and helping him sign up for cricket camp and seek attention from the selectors of a national cricket competition.

Like most engaging reads, you do not have to like cricket to enjoy this, although I did find the glossary of common cricketing terms very useful to bring the content to life. ‘Cricket Crazy’ bowled me away with its authentically told yarn of LBW, life between wickets.

Cricket Crazy

By Vivienne Bailey

AHOY! / The Cuba Press

RRP $25.00

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There’s no such thing as Humans by Helen Vivienne Fletcher (HVF Publishing)

What lurks beyond the edge of the forest? Since the beginning of time, the unusual, the unknown and the unexplained has interested and intrigued all of us. Should we be curious, cautious, or plain scared of what we are unsure of?

Therein lies the conundrum of a persistent little monster called Grub.

Cautionary family myths and fun fairy tales often serve as harmless boundary-setters for the more adventurous members of our clan, and Grub’s well-meaning mum has carefully constructed certain unproven secrets to keep her mischievous offspring close to home.

This parental plan seems to have kept Grub at bay, until now.

Grub steps out with his partner-in-grime Puddles, and they egg each other on, eager to end their life’s obsession with that unknown being named ‘human’.

Do our meagre monsters dare to tread where no monster has stomped before?

You bet they do.

“There’s no such thing as humans, there’s no such thing as humans.” These are the words repeated to all young monsters, so this must be true, right? This is where our adventure begins, beyond the edge of the forest, where each intrepid foot-stomp takes Grub and Puddles further into the world of being near humans and far from the safety of their lovely lair.

I loved this original and quirky early reader. The inviting cartoon-like illustrations and snappy chapters are easy to devour and promote a ‘just scary enough’ story bite between bath and bedtime.

With lots of comic-like pictures to cradle its generous font, the author understands the careful balance between a slow-release plot with an out of this world imagination. This adventure will be perfect for your next shared wrapped up winter story time.

There’s no such thing as humans

By Helen Vivienne Fletcher

HVF Publishing Ltd

RRP $20.00

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The Life and Times of Eddie McGrath by Brigid Feehan (OneTree House)

In these uncertain times, life skills such as agility, adaptability and resilience are essential tools to have in our backpack.

Think of a human Swiss army knife kept within arm’s reach to access and apply in any given situation. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Often, we just don’t seem to find what we need, when we need it. But what if maybe, just maybe, we had all the capability we needed, right inside us, just neatly tucked away until the right situation to bring it to life…?

Discovering hidden depths and overcoming adversity has been a common theme in many classic children’s books. Be it Charlie Bucket scraping together discarded coins from the bare pavements of his bleak hometown in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to discovering wind generated electricity in poor African villages in The Boy who harnessed the Wind, these amazing young characters have dug deep and surprised themselves by doing life a bit differently.

The Life and Times of Eddie McGrath is Brigid Feehan’s third published book for young readers after her debut novel, Stella Star took home the Tom Fitzgibbon award in 2005 for the best junior fiction manuscript.

This compelling real-life scrapbook of a young teenager brings together all the authentic stuff that rules a developing youth’s mind and very existence. Over school, not really getting relationships, concerned about BIG adult themes and yet, not able to decide what to do or even how to do it.

Eddie McGrath feels like nothing special. She has an annoying dad, out of control feelings, weird school mates and no real direction in her ‘not so long on this earth’ life.

Eddie’s life seems dim and ugly, with nothing out of the ordinary going on. That is, until she wins an essay competition and gets the chance to visit the Beehive and even meet the Prime Minister.

Eddie’s dull life is about to change for the better, with the help of annoying but well-meaning parents, loyal friends and encouraging teachers, (you know the ones that stay with you in your very make-up, long after leaving school).

She finds her social consciousness hiding amongst the ruins of an abandoned old house, when she stumbles across Sylvia, an eccentric escapee from the local retirement home. Feathers fly and friendships are hatched in the rushed rescue plans to find forever homes for a roost of rambling roosters.

This slightly silly book is hard to put down. It combines hilarious and entertaining plot twists with all the right elements to both inspire and educate the reader. Eddie McGrath is the quiet small hero in all our communities, full of doubts and questions, seeking answers to far bigger adult issues with courage and pure stubbornness.

I loved this relatable tale of perseverance, authentic awkwardness and dogged determination and am left wondering where Eddie will end up in life, and I can’t see it being on any back bench.

The Life and Times of Eddie McGrath

By Brigid Feehan

OneTree House

RRP $24.00

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Partners in Slime by Belinda O’Keefe (Scholastic)

You know those great reads that tick all the right boxes?

The ones that make you laugh, think, and dream, but most of all, firmly plant you in the lives and neighbourhoods of their character’s lives, staring at the posters on their wall, and wondering what that funky smell is coming from that titanic pile of tossed socks in their brother’s bedroom?

Partners in Slime is one of those books.

Caught up in the sticky lives of best mates Jake and Cooper, we find ourselves inhaling all the toxic fumes of sibling rivalry, carefully bubbling up secret recipes to produce the ‘world’s best slime’.

The only thing our overly inventive friends like more than slime is riding ’really scary rollercoasters’, but of course, they cost lots and lots of money, which our likely lads do not have. So, together they hatch a plan to create and sell enough slime to take them all the way to the fairground, and therein lies a recipe for disaster.

For those of you that have children of your own, watch the internet or have friends that do, you will know that slime is quite a big thing. For instance, if you type in ‘slime recipes’ into a Google search engine, you will be rewarded with 12,200,000 results.

So, with all those options out there, who could possibly come up with something new, fresh, or ‘never seen before’?

Our budding scientists, Jake and Cooper have found the answer in ‘magnetic neon gloop’, a carefully concocted combination of secret ingredients, stolen recipes and more than a pinch of ‘blind luck’. This is where this highly original yarn goes pear-shaped, morphing into near disaster as their lab experiment takes on a life of its own, causing chaos and havoc in their sedate small town.

Partners in Slime was the standout winner of last year’s Tom Fitzgibbon award for an outstanding original junior manuscript, and a clear favourite with the talented panel of Storylines judges.

Author Belinda O’Keefe is no stranger to sharing quirky twisted nature tales, enjoying success with her hilarious ‘triffids for tots’ picture book, The day the plants fought back. She also made the shortlist for the Storylines Joy Cowley Award in both 2016 and 2017.

When I pick up a new novel for children, and I have read a few, I look for larger than life characters, imaginative landscapes or plot lines that encompass strong life lessons in a light and fun manner.

Partners in Slime totally nails all those essential elements for me.

Adorably competitive chapters and creative kiwi silliness merge together perfectly to paint a canvas of colourful characters.

For instance, at one stage Cooper asks how Uncle Ivor lost his finger, only to be provided with an extensive list of possibilities, such as “it was bitten off by a puma in Peru”, or “it was sliced off with a samurai sword in his ninja warrior days”. All completely plausible and equally engaging, just like this unforgettably great book.

Partners in Slime

By Belinda O’Keefe

Scholastic NZ

RRP $19.00

Buy now

Dave Tucker

I am an English born; Kiwi raised grown up library boy. My past work life has seen me sell holidays (Flight Centre), sell albums (Sounds/Marbecks/Real Groovy) and now I immerse myself in the wonderful world of libraries. I am currently the team leader at Glen Eden Library. Prior to that I wore many hats (picture Dr Seuss and many more) as a Children’s Librarian with Auckland Libraries. For over a decade I told tall tales, shook my sillies out and shared my love of literacy and acting up and out with the cool children of Auckland. My favourite children’s book is ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and the first book that I fell in love with was ‘Where the wild things are’. This gave me the courage as a shy boy to roar on stage at the school play.