Reviews: Four Junior Fiction Reads

Hannah Marshall offers us her opinions on four recent junior fiction releases—featuring talking cats, taniwha, secret agents and more.

Pipi and Pou and the Raging Mountain and Pipi and Pou and the River Monster, written by Tim Tipene and illustrated by Isobel Te Aho-White

Tim Tipene’s latest foray into junior fiction introduces us to the delightful world of cousins Pipi and Pou and their kuia Nana, and the adventures this trio of kaitiaki get up to. Nana is a tohunga in touch with the natural world; on command, Pipi has the ability to turn into a Pouākai (Haast’s eagle), and Pou can turn into a taniwha. 

Nana is whip smart and bolshy, and her many witty one-liners made her, by far, my favourite character. One of her best lines comes when Pou asks how she could possibly have communicated to Tāwhiri-mātea, the god of wind: 

‘“Was he here?” Pou questioned. He walked to the corner of the house to check the driveway for any sign of a visiting car.

“He’s the father of wind, boy!” Nana frowned. “He’s not driving around in a BMW!”’

A scene from Pipi and Pou, illustrated by Isobel Te Aho-White

It’s this wry humour from the characters that make this book so entertaining. From talking kākā who say ‘Yeah, nah,’ and ‘What’s up, bro?,’ to Pipi and Pou’s relentless banter, the story is a lively and colourful read that is sure to entice even the most reluctant of readers. A satirical commentary on social media influencer culture in River Monster may go over the heads of younger readers, but it’s delightful for any adults consuming these stories too. The crackling dialogue throughout makes these books feel best suited for reading aloud. 

Raging Mountain and River Monster have almost identical beginnings, allowing flexibility with their reading order. River Monster’s more complex plot and character insight made it my favourite of the two, but both stories follow the same arc without feeling formulaic or repetitive. Protecting the environment is the moral of Pipi and Pou, but the message is delivered with humour and goodwill. The series spreads an important and timely message without becoming patronising and preachy, which is sure to resonate with kids.

It’s this wry humour from the characters that make this book so entertaining

Pipi and Pou are well-rounded characters who, despite their superhero abilities, still feel like real kids with their own problems and priorities: ‘They loved being superheroes. It was just that sometimes they wanted to relax, to be lazy, to read a book, play on screens, watch television,’ Tipene writes. The depth of the characters made these books spring to life from the page.

Pipi and Pou show us that we don’t need supernatural abilities to be kaitiaki for the environment, and that protecting the natural world is rewarding, community-building, and fun. These books are sure to be a hit with kids and adults alike. I’m looking forward to seeing what more adventures this trio of kaitiaki get up to. 

The Raging Mountain (#1 Pipi and Pou)

Written by Tim Tipene

Illustrated by Isobel Te Aho-White

Published by OneTree House

RRP: $22.00

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The River Monster (#2 Pipi and Pou)

Written by Tim Tipene

Illustrated by Isobel Te Aho-White

Published by OneTree House

RRP: $22.00

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Journey Through the Cat Door, written by Belinda O’Keefe and illustrated by Monica Koster

I must admit I was a little dubious about this book at the start, given that it’s narrated from the point of view of Enzo, a Russian blue cat. I wasn’t sure whether an animal perspective story would appeal to the intermediate-age audience this novel is catered for. But I was pleasantly surprised. 

Enzo’s narration is engaging and believable, and his voice strikes the purrfect (sorry, I had to) balance of intelligence with a cat’s worldview—he’s quick-thinking and likeable, but he’s easily distracted by flying insects and terrified of the family vacuum cleaner. The narration was plausible enough that I have since been wondering about my own cat’s inner monologue.

Polly poses with Journey Through the Cat Door

Journey Through the Cat Door feels a lot like an uncensored fairytale. The villain of the story, Professor Olga Stone, is described as fat and ugly: her ‘extra chin’ and ‘chubby hands with claw-like nails’ all add to her vileness. The fat villain trope is outdated and hurtful, and one that the literary world is better without. Professor Stone hunts wild, endangered animals to use in her gourmet restaurant —the likes of fried kiwi and koalas are on the menu—which made me wonder why no one’s called the SPCA on her yet. Descriptions such as cats being thrown live into blenders and Professor Stone’s fate towards the end of the story were pretty graphic and slightly mortifying. An animal-loving kid may get a nasty surprise with this book.

Enzo’s narration is engaging [and] plausible enough that I have since been wondering about my own cat’s inner monologue

The folksy, fairytale-esque setting of the story, combined with Monica’s whimsical illustrations, was delightful—apart from the animal abuse. However, Enzo’s recruitment into PAWS, the high-tech, cat-led agency trying to put a stop to Olga Stone, felt incredibly out of place against the quaint and old-timey world O’Keefe had built. Also, the cast of cats was all male, bar one; I was eager for more gender diversity. 

I think Journey Through the Cat Door is an ambitious and intriguing premise, and I can definitely see a fairytale-inspired, cat POV story appealing to a middle-grade audience. But despite a fast-paced storyline with many satisfying twists, I’m not sure this book quite pulls it off. 

Journey Through the Cat Door

Written by Belinda O’Keefe 

Illustrated by Monica Koster

Published by David Bateman Ltd

RRP: $21.99

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Jason Mason and the World’s Most Powerful Itching Powder, written by Jason Gunn and Andrew Gunn

For the generation of kids who will be too young to have known Jason Gunn from TV, Jason Mason introduces young readers to the humour and antics of one of NZ’s most prolific children’s presenters. The book is co-written with Jason’s brother Andrew Gunn, a screenwriter for children’s television, so you know it’s in safe hands.

It’s clear these two know exactly what kids want from reading. Jason Mason is a classic comedic book full of silly jokes, including those of the fart variety, which echoes popular international series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Andy Griffiths’ The Bad Book.

Jason Mason introduces young readers to the humour and antics of one of NZ’s most prolific children’s presenters

However, while Jason Mason is clearly designed to fit into an existing and well-established genre of children’s books, it brings a distinct Aotearoa flavour that keeps the story interesting. Jason Mason is the perfect anti-hero, because while he’s a secret agent, he’s also the kind of kid who gets picked on, isn’t the smartest or sportiest or most popular, and is admittedly not a fan of reading. And, in the classically Kiwi fashion, he’s humble. Take this scene after Jason Mason saves the day at a Bledisloe Cup game:

‘Suddenly there were lots of very big rugby players all round me, clapping me on the back and saying, “Good one, mate!”

One of them asked, “Who are you?”

I just shrugged and said, “Nobody, really.”’

Jason Mason is an inviting book for reluctant readers, and the illustrations and visual formatting of the text, with different fonts and sizes scattered throughout, is enticing, alongside a relatable main character. While some may look down on the book’s farty humour as unoriginal and overused, there’s plenty of Kiwiana and enough witty jokes that make this book stand out. It’s sure to win over kids who otherwise wouldn’t read a book at all, which makes it a win for me, too.  

Jason Mason and the World’s Most Powerful Itching Powder

Written by Jason and Andrew Gunn

Published by David Bateman Ltd

RRP: $20.00

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Hannah Marshall is a reader, writer, and advocate for New Zealand books from Pōneke. She has a Bachelor of Arts in media studies and creative writing from Victoria University, and she’s also been an NZSA Youth Mentorship Award recipient, the winner of the Maurice Gee Prize in Children’s Writing, and most recently been an NZSA CompleteMS Manuscript Assessment recipient. You can also find her work in various places, including bad apple, Starling, and takahē.