Book Reviews: Three Junior Fiction Annuals

Founding editor Sarah Forster talks all things aeroplanes, albatrosses, creepy dolls and more in Aotearoa’s latest offering of junior fiction annuals.

Annual 3, edited by Susan Paris and Kate De Goldi

On opening Annual 3, I was impressed by the diverse range of voices Susan and Kate have included this year. We have wonderful work from new voice J. Wiremu Kane, Ant Sang, Indira Neville, and Anahera Gildea. There is a lot more te reo Māori, and some Samoan, with the spooky ‘Glass’ by Amber Esau. 

A miscellany is an interesting thing, and its tone relies entirely on the taste of the editors. Susan and Kate have two Annuals complete now, and with each one it feels as though they are becoming less for kids, and more for the adults who think kids should be reading ‘better books.’ 

To be clear, I do too. But I have two kids who are exactly in the age range now for the Annual—which has been floating around the lounge for weeks—and of them, only the 12-year-old has shown any interest in the content of this book. My 10-year-old knows what types of books he likes and sticks with them, and honestly I’m okay with that.  

But let’s start the review proper! 

Susan and Kate have two Annuals complete now, and with each one it feels as though they are becoming less for kids, and more for the adults who think kids should be reading ‘better books’ 

One of the things that makes Annual 3 special is the illustrations. From the tumbling astronaut on the cover, to the noodly drawings in diaries and screenplays, the Richard Scarry-type illustrations highlighting Renata Hopkins’ ‘Invalid words,’ Giselle’s spread, the photography, the art, the graphic interpretation of Maurice Gee’s The Champion, to the secret of the survival of headlice—the art is outstanding.

A highlight story for me—alongside ‘Glass,’ which rewards a second read (I should add my 12-year-old read one page and wasn’t interested)—was a fave regular author, Gavin Mouldey’s ‘Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s Lost Marbles.’ The detective protagonist is my favourite type of genius girl and I like the teacher’s trust in her to get the job done. A lovelorn slater indeed! 

Spread from Annual 3: ‘Failure is not an option’, by Freya Daly Sadgrove, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris (Annual Ink)

A new element that I enjoyed was the art sections—they are diverse in their selections: two paintings, a sculpture, and a photograph. The way in which they are written draws you into the art and helps you see it in a new way. The best one for me was ‘The sound of home’ by Lana Lopesi. For one thing, I learned something. I live in a very Pākehā suburb of Wellington, and neither my kids nor I had heard of Siren Crews. 

Another highlight is Ant Sang’s rendition of Maurice Gee’s The Champion, a graphic summary of the YA novel which tells the story of a family who billets a Black US soldier, and the impact it has—first disappointing, then enlightening, then world-enlarging—on a young boy in the family. The 16 pages of illustrations take us on the entire journey without making us feel like we’re missing any nuance. 

Kids who love all things spooky will enjoy the stories in this book, like the aforementioned ‘Glass’ and Airini Beautrais’ ‘Doll.’ I recall at 12 suddenly finding that my friends were reading Point Horror books and feeling like I had to do the same, despite the fact I have always hated the uncanny! The use of the classic doll for older tweens is perfect, as dolls represent childhood, and childhood can haunt you.  

This third miscellany has the most genuine Kiwi flavour of all of them. The diversity, including of language—I enjoyed challenging my brain with pangakupu—and themes were welcome. But I would love to see more low-brow stuff included! I laughed at the photo of the toilet roll palaver, I liked the knitting pattern for brains, and invalid words. My 12-year-old liked Holly, Camp Kuku, and the Old Dingus comic strip.  

This third miscellany has the most genuine Kiwi flavour of all of them

But why not include something from Juliette MacIver? Why not bring in more of our published writers for children? Giselle is there of course—with a delectable party spread—but let more in, and I think not only will the editors avoid the ire of the writers next time they diminish our entire publishing industry (albeit by accident), they might get kids like mine devouring every page.  

Annual 3

Edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris

Published by Annual Ink

RRP: $45.00

Flying Furballs: Take-off! by Donovan Bixley

I have been a fan of Flying Furballs since its first book, so I was really happy that Donovan had created a picture book preceding the series—hopefully introducing a new generation to the hilarity of CATZ v DOGZ. 

The series, if you aren’t familiar with it, takes many of the familiar tropes of WWII but transfers them into a more child-friendly format. While there are spy plots and a few close shaves, and even turncoats, there are no actual deaths shown on screen as it were. 

This production from Donovan Bixley has all the hallmarks of a single-author annual. There are several stories, one in text with fewer illustrations, one in full graphic format, that stop and carry on further on in the book—what kid doesn’t love a hanging ending? 

A spread from Flying Furballs: Take Off! by Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press)

We find out a bit more about the arrogant Major Tom in a dedicated story ‘Tom Foolery,’ and see Claude off on his first adventure in ‘Up in Smoke.’ 

Here is one choice pun-laden para as a teaser, from General Fluffington: “What are you two doing pussy-footing about in the corridors? This war isn’t going to fight itself, you know. If those dogz conquer Paris you can say goodbye to your cat biscuits and cream.”  

This production from Donovan Bixley has all the hallmarks of a single-author annual

Donovan has also indulged in some more explanations of his favourite planes, and reflecting some of his more recent works, he gives us a tutorial on how to draw our hero, Claude D’Bonair. 

My absolute favourite page was the code-cracker. I’ve never been able to resist those, and I did this one with my 10-year-old. We also had fun finding C-4s missing items, in a spread reminiscent of the Looky Book. 

A puzzle spread from Flying Furballs: Take Off! by Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press)

The only thing I didn’t like about this book was that the back was emblazoned with Amazon reviews. I know this is probably a publisher choice—but Amazon has destroyed innumerable bookshops and are a bad company. Let’s not see them supported on a book sold in New Zealand. Hopefully now The Sapling is back, we won’t see it again!

Here’s your blurb: Flying Furballs: Take-off! displays Donovan Bixley’s virtuosity with the pen, both in writing and illustration. Perfect for kids of all ages, especially those who love seeing how planes are made.

Flying Furballs: Take Off!

By Donovan Bixley

Published by Upstart Press Ltd

RRP: $24.99

Toitoi: Jillion 2, edited by Charlotte Gibbs

It’s interesting, placing Annual 3 and Jillion 2 side by side. Both are beautiful books, and they are a similar size. Jillion has opted for a spaceship on the front this time—they have certainly had an issue in the past that featured a spaceman floating though! 

On the production front, I think Jillion may just have the edge, only thanks to their colourful ribbons, which help keen readers mark their favourite passages. And the selection is *chef’s kiss*. They both have satisfying pages to turn though, and vibrant colours. 

The selection for Jillion 2 is taken from issues 13-24 of Toitoi magazine, and features poems, stories, and illustrations by children aged 5-13. The book is arranged into six sections, with 13 pieces of work per section. The centre of the book is a showcase of some purely wonderful illustrations, created in various media, including some gorgeous crochet scenes. 

A spread from Jillion 2: ‘On-Court Complications’, by Maioha ki te Ao Tohe, pictures by Matilda Wake-Willers, edited by Charlotte Gibbs (Toitoi Media)

I feel like every child, whether they are like my 10-year-old and honestly not that keen on writing, or like my 10-year-old self and ready to tackle a 15,000-word story competition (I didn’t win), can flick through the pages of this book and find something they think they might be able to achieve. Perhaps a haiku about clams? Or perhaps a three-page story about a fly who just wanted a name of his own. 

I feel like every child can flick through the pages of this book and find something they think they might be able to achieve

Or a reflection on a visit to a Holocaust exhibition, a sumo-wrestling principal, some advice from an albatross, a prose poem about defeating the Ender Dragon, a four-page story about a post-apocalyptic junkyard hero (with spectacular illustrations), or a story about acceptance from someone who doesn’t fit the gender binary. 

A spread from Jillion 2: ‘Advice from an Albatross’, by Oscar Murphy, pictures by Sarah Nakayama-Mattingly, edited by Charlotte Gibbs (Toitoi Media)

The writing included shows a huge range of cultural diversity, as well as showcasing the various interests of our kids. If I had to choose a fave, I rather liked the poem about ‘My Cat, Bitey:’

My cat, Bitey, lives far away in Russia
with my grandma and grandpa. 

Tell me more! 

Toitoi’s stated mission is to “celebrate the creative spirit of young New Zealanders.”  The young New Zealanders included are exceptional, and Toitoi is now at the stage where there will be young writers who have worked with the team behind it while at school, ready to publish their first full-length book. I feel like I’ve said this before many times—but the future is in good hands. I take my hat off to you, Charlotte Gibbs! And to the young writers and illustrators of New Zealand. 

Jillion 2

Edited by Charlotte Gibbs

Published by Toitoi Media Limited

RRP: $45.00

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.