Sapling co-founder Sarah Forster brings us this latest batch of reviews of junior fiction titles, all featuring animals in some capacity (yes, even extinct ones)!
Odd Wolf Out (#1 Faelan the Wolf), by Juliette MacIver
I was delighted to see this book come out. And while this wasn’t exactly the middle grade fiction book I thought Juliette would write—I was expecting pure comedy based on her track record—I’m pleased she has! Faelan Maculf’s story may not be a laugh a minute, but it is an important story about tolerance, kindness, and complicated family—with a bit of humour.
Faelan is a gentle vegetarian wolf in a traditional wolf pack where most rituals include the murder of innocent animals. He is accepted by the current leader of the pack, Bardolph Lupus, as long as he lives away from the grounds. Bardolph is respected by other packs for his ingenious fighting techniques—but we soon learn that he is unwell, and that his heir Waylin is less well-disposed towards Faelan.
…while this wasn’t exactly the middle grade fiction book I thought Juliette would write—I was expecting pure comedy based on her track record—I’m pleased she has!
He has few friends in the pack, but Tala—Bardolph’s daughter—emerges as one at the opening of the book when she shares with Faelan that his father is not dead as he had been led to believe, while they are on a routine scent-marking run. Tala has taken the talisman of leadership, a magical Moonstone, on this run. They are beset by wolves from Varg Akafar’s rival pack, and while they escape with their lives, the Moonstone goes missing.
We are immersed in the wolf’s world through passages like this: ‘Mother Moon would begin her next life as a tiny slip of sliver the following evening. She lived and died, over and over, always radiant, always calm. Mother Moon taught her wolves not to fear death, but to see and understand the rhythm of it, the cycle of life and death, as she demonstrated it for them month after month in the night sky.’
Faelan Maculf’s story may not be a laugh a minute, but it is an important story about tolerance, kindness, and complicated family—with a bit of humour.
Juliette has drawn very neat correlations between the wolf world and the human world, and the way in which humans tend to reject what we do not understand and live against nature. Faelan offends the pack simply by having a tidy house, with furniture and fresh flowers, and enjoying cups of tea and bean stew in front of the fireplace. As the story carries on, we are introduced to other outliers within the wolfpack, which as well as healer and seer Granny Beowulf, incidentally, include Tala’s brother, the bully Waylin, a skilled embroiderer.
Faelan also plays the harp—very skilled for a wolf with no opposable thumbs—and through his music makes friends with a singing chicken. When tracking his new friend across the river, he ends up on a farm with many chickens, who prove to be intelligent and excellent new friends to him, and rescue him from a situation involving the wolf’s natural enemy—the farmer.
The plot turns on Tala’s desire to include Faelan on a diplomatic mission to Varg Akafar’s territory—the terrifying-sounding Lockjaw Mountains—to retrieve the Moonstone and renegotiate the pack’s hunting boundaries. She wants Faelan to join her for a very good reason. But Faelan is terrified. As the book ends, Granny Beowulf has added her voice to Tala’s and gives him a prophesy.
Juliette has drawn very neat correlations between the wolf world and the human world, and the way in which humans tend to reject what we do not understand and live against nature.
It must be hard when fully anthropomorphising animals to respect their shapes while giving them human characteristics, and to be fair to Juliette I don’t think she meant the wolves to be *just* wolves. However, my brain did have issues occasionally with the occasional explicit references to body parts which sounded… a bit awkward. Like this: ‘“I want what is due to me,” said Waylin, tugging on his wet gloves and struggling with the fingers. “Respect. And obedience.”’
This minor quibble does not detract from the power of the storytelling and my overall enjoyment of the book. I think this would be a great novel to study with year 5 and 6 students, as it includes themes of environmentalism, living within nature, and animal rights—while being pacy, funny, and engaging. I can’t wait for the next one, due out this month.
Odd Wolf Out (#1 Faelan the Wolf)
By Juliette MacIver
Published by Scholastic NZ
Kittens! (#5 Dave Pigeon), by Swapna Haddow
I am a huge Swapna Haddow fan, and I’m so happy the Dave Pigeon series has continued, after a break for a couple of Bad Panda books.
If you and your kids haven’t met Dave Pigeon, here’s where we are at. Dave and his mate Skipper live in a cabin outside The Human Lady’s house, where they live on scavenged human food, with their favourite being biscuits. Dave has a broken wing, due to an early run-in with Mean Cat, who is usually about as friendly as most cats are to pigeons.
If your kid is anything like mine, they will be very annoyed at Dave from the get-go. He always has his own self-interests at heart, and his loyal friend Skipper is forced to go along with many a cat-brained scheme that ends in disaster. But he is a very good storyteller, and he also enjoys a good story being told—especially one where he might be the hero.
I am a huge Swapna Haddow fan, and I’m so happy the Dave Pigeon series has continued…
This quote from the book is from when they realise there is a second cat on the property, and Dave offers a thought on how this may have happened: cloning, of course. ‘Dave puffed out his chest with an all-knowing authority. “And then Mean Cat jumped into a bird bath full of baked beans to copy her cat essence.” “Baked beans?” “It’s the closest thing to what is inside a cat. Keep up Skipper.”
Skipper is a sensible pigeon, but he gets drawn into Dave’s hijinks regularly. The new cat, Tinkles the canary informs them (for a biscuit fee), is Aunty’s Cat. And Mean Cat is terrified of her. “Legend says that Aunty’s Cat learned to sharpen her claws into the shape of keys specifically so she could lock Mean Cat out of every room in the house.”
But he (Dave) is a very good storyteller, and he also enjoys a good story being told—especially one where he might be the hero.
Aunty’s Cat makes it into their safe haven, so the birds have to run—straight under the house, where Aunty’s Cat may not fit—but Mean Cat does. But she’s acting strange. Enter—a bit of a mess later— the kittens.
Dave has a particular fondness for kittens, despite Skipper’s sensible assurances that they will still grow to be cats. But there is the problem of Aunty’s Cat, waiting outside. Will the birds ally themselves with a cat to beat their common enemy? Or are they going to be ‘Pigeon curry with a helping of steamed pigeon rice and complimentary crispy pigeon poppadoms?’ (Dave’s words, not mine).
I’ll let you and yours find out. I think the charm of Dave’s story is the fact that he has a lot of characteristics that as adults we teach kids are negative, but he is still—sometimes despite himself—an excellent friend.
I think the charm of Dave’s story is the fact that he has a lot of characteristics that as adults we teach kids are negative, but he is still—sometimes despite himself—an excellent friend.
The books have illustrations throughout, by Sheena Dempsey, and occasional pages of fully illustrated dialogue. The illustrations perfectly complement the book, and the publication value makes it engaging to look at, whether you are having it read to you or reading it aloud.
I wholly recommend this for early readers at the lower end of junior fiction—around 7 to 10 years old. You can read this book away from its series, but it helps to have some familiarity with Dave Pigeon, so I recommend starting from book one!
Kittens! (#5 Dave Pigeon)
By Swapna Haddow
Illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
Published by Faber & Faber Ltd.
Jason Mason and the Flightless Bird Fiasco (#2), by Jason and Andrew Gunn
My 11-year-old absolutely loved this book. And I was forced to face my prejudices against TV people coming into the children’s book industry. After all, why wouldn’t two people who have been writing and producing children’s TV for around three decades know a thing or two about how to tell a story?
If you were a child in the 90’s, you will know who Jason Gunn is. He was inescapable, whether after school with Thingy on The Son of a Gunn Show or Jase TV, hosting the McDonalds Young Entertainers, or What Now. He runs Whitebait Media, which produces a number of children’s TV shows, including What Now, but also BrainBusters and more.
Onto the review! As we start our book, Jason Mason has been called in again to help as a secret agent for the NZ government. His partner is Agent Rātana, and this time they have a mission to help the bumbling Constable Jelley hunt down a moa. Yes, moa are extinct. But this one has been spotted three times—and stolen a pie—so they’ve decided it’s worth checking out.
My 11-year-old absolutely loved this book.
Despite being named after a moa, this book’s plot has more to do with the launch of KIWI1, New Zealand’s first manned aircraft into space. The famous astronaut charged with this is the handsome-but-clumsy Captain Blake Steel. When Jason learns he is to be at the launch, he is very excited. He’s less excited when he learns his role is to look after Pixie, Blake’s precious and unfriendly chihuahua, during the 90 minute flight.
I hadn’t read the first book, so I didn’t know Jason’s backstory, but the book did well enough to fill it in. Here are the essentials: Jason Mason inherited a ring from his Great Uncle George when he died, and this ring allows him to go invisible for 60 seconds at a time. And like his Great Uncle, Jason now works as a secret agent. A secret secret agent—not even his parents know. The first book also introduced evil villain Hugh Jarse (in a naming move calculated to get a snigger every time you read it aloud, even from adults), and Jason has outsmarted him once already.
I hadn’t read the first book, so I didn’t know Jason’s backstory, but the book did well enough to fill it in.
Of course, as well as being a secret agent, Jason has to attend school. Fortunately, one of his teachers knows his secret, and invents an essay competition for him to ‘win’, with the prize being that his entire class and his parents are able to attend the KIWI1 launch—cool! But his best mate Kyle is starting to ask questions relating to his adventure in the previous book, and things are getting awkward.
I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll move on to explaining why I rate this book so highly. My 11-year-old reads well, but it isn’t his favourite activity. I haven’t read as much to him as I did to my older boy, because if he isn’t engaged, he turns off. If he is—he doesn’t shut up. He asks so many questions! But Every Time He Asked A Question while I was reading this book, the very next paragraph answered it. There was no ‘wait and find out’ moments—it was right there. It was like the authors had a child just like mine asking these questions while writing the book.
It was like the authors had a child just like mine asking these questions while writing the book.
This is a good example: ‘ “Cool…” I said, trying to act nonplussed. (I didn’t know what ‘nonplussed’ meant at the time, but since then I’ve done some googling to find a word that means “surprised, confused, and uncertain how to react”,” and “nonplussed” is that word. Feel free to use it).’
There is no assumption of language knowledge—but there are also opportunities to learn, while laughing along at Jason’s adventures. Of course, this would be frustrating if your kid is a prodigious reader with a particular hatred of being talked down to, but for the audience they are targeting, this is perfect.
Highly recommended for kids who love funny books, aged 7 up.
Jason Mason and the flightless bird fiasco
By Jason and Andrew Gunn
Published by David Bateman Ltd.
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.